The map that changed the world : William Smith and the birth of modern geology

by Simon Winchester

Other authorsSoun Vannithone
Paper Book, 2001



Call number

QE22 .S6W55 2001


New York, NY : HarperCollins, c2001.


In 1793, William Smith, the orphan son of a village blacksmith, made a startling discovery that was to turn the science of geology on its head. While surverying the route for a canal near Bath, he noticed that the fossils found in one layer of the rocks he was excavating were very different from those found in another. And out of that realization came an epiphany: that by following these fossils one could trace layers of rocks as they dipped, rose and fell across the world. This is the story of his life and the history of geology.

Media reviews

Smith was ultimately successful because his ideas were immediately useful, and his map was beautiful as well as reasonably accurate for its era. It taught us to begin to look beneath the surface and see the history of our planet. The publisher of ''The Map That Changed the World'' pays tribute to Smith in the ingenious dust jacket of this book, which unfolds to form a striking reproduction of Smith's map.
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True, the reader must put aside a familiarity with Smith's discoveries, which have long since become textbook information, and travel back in time to the days when the earth was literally terra incognita. But for those willing to suspend previous knowledge and great expectations, Mr. Winchester tries hard to make this story worth the trip.
The genre of scientific biography has gone rather stale over the last year or so, but Winchester's book may well prompt a revival.
Listening is akin to hearing an articulate scientist reading a paper to a lay audience. It's an authoritative delivery and an enjoyable experience.

User reviews

LibraryThing member asteffmann
This was my second Simon Winchester book (Krakatoa was the first), and I was a little disappointed again. Winchester is a good scientist and historian (and he picks good topics to write about), but I don't care for him much as a writer. Somehow the story he tells seems to lack a driving force. He comes back to certain points or foreshadows certain events time and again - some writers can do that well, but it just seems redundant here. It also takes away from some of the drama he tries to create. In one passage he describes a fossil hall in London's Museum of Natural History, and you can tell he's working his way up to Smith's collection. When he gets there though, he has nothing new to say. William Smith had an incredible fossil collection. He had serious financial difficulties for several years. Both he and his fossils have been overlooked. Important points, but also points that have all been covered in great detail in the preceding 200 pages.

Even with Winchester's less-than-perfect writing, "The Map That Changed the World" is an interesting enough read. Worth checking out from the library, or buying from a used book store.
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LibraryThing member TadAD
Normally, I find biographical/historical works fascinating. Looking at the cover and reading the jacket summary, I was expecting another Longitude or Nathaniel's Nutmeg. Unfortunately, that's not what we have here. Mr. Winchester's presentation of the material completely destroyed any interest I may have had in William Smith's contribution to the founding of geological science.

I can understand that, other than his ground-breaking cartography and his conflict with those who tried to steal credit for his work, there isn't a lot of exciting material present. However, rather than take Sobel's (Longitude) approach of simply writing a shorter book, Winchester found it necessary to stuff the book chock full of endless repetition, smarmy adulation, overly-long quotation and irrelevant travelogue. Coupled with his need to employ footnotes incessantly, this caused me to lose the thread of the main story quite often.

Shortly after halfway through the book, I found myself skimming more and more frequently, trying to pick out the portions that were germane to the story in which I was interested.

A disappointment.
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LibraryThing member dchaikin
I read this five years ago, so this is based on limited memory.

This is an interesting, readable, but light biography of William Smith, the creator of the first geologic map. Those looking for an introduction to or insight into geology probably should look elsewhere.

OK, that was all overstated. But, it's more-or-less true. Simon Winchester is a good writer and publishes a lot of books, many with a geologic tilt. But, there is a cost to publishing so fast - he needs to accomplish a great deal of research at a remarkable speed, and probably on a set time schedule. He does cover a lot of ground. But, I have to imagine, every time he turns and follows further down some research path of interest, something else has to get left out. Also, he is writing for a popular audience. Anyway, we only get part of the story.

What is presented is a very interesting and detailed account of the life of William Smith, a man whose name says a lot. He was hardworking, and had hard luck; dedicated, but not brilliant. He did have brilliant idea and he ran himself ragged running back and forth across England to make it work. And he did it, going broke somewhere in the process and even spending time in a debtors prison. Tragically, his success only came over years of fascinating resistance. Here the book provides wonderful details. One "scientist," and critic of Smith, lays out a plan to cover English geology by traveling around the country and simply interviewing various peasants and locals about their local rocks. So much for the need for field work!

But what is missing is the geology. William Smith was a product both of his time AND of his geology - that of England. Had he lived anywhere else, even within the same kind culture, his map would have never come about. England is unique. It's a rare place where most of the Phanerozoic ages are present in nice layer cake sedimentary layers. They are all conveniently exposed over a somewhat limited area, and not terribly deformed. It is a place that one person could map. It almost had to be the birth place of the geological map! Telling the life of William Smith without a long discussion about the geology of England and why it is the way it is ... well, it kind of misses the point.

OK, my memories aren't that precise. I don't remember exactly how deeply Winchester actually goes into the geology. But, I do remember he doesn't go too far. When I finished I felt like Winchester wrote this book through heavy research, but without unpacking his rock hammer and without trying to answer that question of why England is blessed with its geology.
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LibraryThing member Niecierpek
At the very end of the 18th century, William Smith made a groundbreaking discovery in England that changed the picture of the world. He noticed that the rocks were arranged in layers which followed a pattern, and that certain fossils always appeared in certain layers of rocks. His discoveries shook the foundations of the belief that the earth and the universe were all created their entirety about 5000 years before. The discovery gave birth to geology as a science, and later to evolutionary biology, and all the sciences that followed.
It is interesting to note that Smith, as many others, was unappreciated for the most part of his life and many wanted to steal his discoveries without giving him any credit. Some published his maps in books ‘without any indication of either permission sought or payment made’, and the poor man ended up in debtors’ prison and suffered years of homelessness before he was properly honoured at the end of his life.
Not a bad book, but I would shorten it considerably on the details of Smith’s life and conversations he had with various people, and put more information on the geological processes and the history of Earth in general, especially that Winchester is an educated geologist.
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LibraryThing member Noisy
Hagiographical? Frankly, I don't care. I luxuriated in this book.

Call me old-fashioned, but this is the style of writing that hits all the right buttons with me. It put me in mind of Michael Innes, a writer of detective fiction from the middle of the 20th century who wrote in a very formal way: his prose was beautiful, and Simon Winchester's style is very similar. I contrast it with the output of Hal Duncan - the writer of "Vellum" - which is that of someone who's experimenting ... and failing.

It's taken me a while to finish the book, so it's not the sort that sucks you in. To an extent, the subject matter is a bit sparse: there is a slight feeling of padding, such as the insertion of a semi-autobiographical chapter in the middle of the book in which Winchester recounts anecdotes which trace his interest in geology and the subject of the book: William Smith - "The Father of English Geology".

Smith plied his trade of surveying; draining land; and giving advice to landowners on the likelihood of coal lying under their property in the early 19th century. He came from humble beginnings, but quickly made a name for himself, while working in Somerset, such that he was employed throughout the land. His early jobs in coal mines gave him the opportunity to notice the layers of rock within which the coal-bearing seams lay, and he used this knowledge to relate the surface rocks to the underlying structure of the earth. His travels across the country allowed him to extend this knowledge to provide a picture of the geological make-up of England and Wales which formed the basis for surveys for individual counties, and for the country as a whole. In particular, the occurrence of fossils in particular strata (he came to be known as 'Strata Smith') gave him the idea that the layers of rock were ordered by age, and that the age of rocks was very great. This conflicted with the prevailing religious idea of the biblical formation of the Earth, but the mood of the times meant that liberal interpretations were becoming more prevalent. These ideas presaged Darwin's work that was to follow.

Smith's life was pretty up and down: he rubbed shoulders with the landed classes who employed him, and established a presence in London, but he always seemed to feel that he couldn't shake off his humble beginnings and be recognised for his contributions to the brand new science of geology. He was thrown into debtors' prison for a while, and this seemed to break his spirit and caused him to retreat from London. This was around the time that the map of the title had been published, but which failed to be the making of his reputation. He settled down to a reasonably quiet life, but recognition came to him in his retirement.

This book places Simon Winchester as a "must buy" author for me, but I can certainly see that some may find his style too florid. I'd still recommend this book for everyone, as a portrait of the changing times in the first half of the 1800s, and it's a vital purchase for anyone who is interested in geology.
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LibraryThing member aaronball8620
"The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology" follows the life of a visionary, William Smith, who dreamed of being the first in history to draw a geologic map of the entire nation of England. This map he would draw would revolutionize mineralogy (as geology was known during that time) and foster the Industrial Revolution. However, his en devour met with opposition from jealous aristocrats.

William Smith was the son of a blacksmith who took up surveying as a profession after his father died. He apprenticed under another well know surveyor and soon became renowned for his accuracy. Many of his early jobs involved surveying coal mines and canal routes. He noticed on his surveys that rock layers repeated from location to location, as did the fossils found in each layer of rock. The rock layers, or stata, fascinated him, and he began drawing conclusions about their order and regularity. He believed that this would prove as fact if only he were able to travel the country to test his hypothesis.

Eventually, he was hired to survey a canal that would be used to transport coal to the market in London. He used this job as an opportunity to pursue his true life's work: as he surveyed and supervised the digging of the canal, he studied the soil and rock layers. The rocks and fossils he collected he would later use to draw his map.

Financial troubles plagued Smith all his life, including financing his map's publication. He worked for almost a decade to get the necessary financial support. Finally, in 1816 he was able to publish the map. The first geologic map ever made.

Soon after the map's publication many people, including the Geological Society of London would plagiarize his work. Smith himself would receive very little credit for having compile the map until 1831.

The map made finding coal seams consistent, thus stoking the coal fires of the Industrial Revolution. William Smith's map marks a paradigm shift in human helped prove that the world was older many Christian fundamentalist believed--they believed it was only 6,000 years old. He was one of the first to recognize fossils in overlying strata were more advanced than the fossils in underlying strata--something that Charles Darwin would recognize too in his book "On The Origin of Species".
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LibraryThing member miketroll
The wonderful story of the little known but great map maker, William Smith, a man of truly historic stature.

Towards the end of the 18th Century in England, Smith created the first ever geological map of Britain (or any other country) at a time when the very word geology had not yet been coined.

Amazingly, Smith completed this work all by himself, an extraordinary, herculean achievement. Sadly, he did not gain recognition of his achievements until late in his life, but passed his last years a contented man, lauded as the Father of English Geology.
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LibraryThing member BenjaminHahn
On first appearance, I wouldn't imagine many would find a book about the origins of modern geology to be high on their pleasure reading lists, but I'm glad I finally took this one off the shelf because it provided brain food of a diverse and pleasurable kind. If any popular historian can make the fumbling origins of geology interesting, it is Simon Winchester. Although Winchester can be a bit dramatic and tends towards hagiography at times, I still found the book quite rewarding.
The Map That Changed the World is more a biography than a popular science book, but delivers on both accounts in an enlightening and compelling way. However, a word of warning to all who may be enticed to read this book by simply reading the book flap alone: the intriguing tid-bit about Smith's wife being a nymphomaniac, should be disregarded as nothing but an editor's ploy to get the more naughty minds to crack the book open looking for tantalizing kinky anecdotes. Sadly, for those of us interested in saucy 1800's nymphomania, the word nymphomania is found only once in the entire book. The details surrounding Smith's wife's affliction are sparse and limited to a single paragraph more than half way through. I do not fault Winchester's editors for stooping to such tactics in hopes of luring more readers into his book. It was a good ploy that seemed to work for our book club and in the end I didn't really care because the story of William Smith was very rewarding and helped expand my mental image of early 1800's scientific England by quite a bit.
For the book collector and admirer of trivial biblio-gimmicks, try to pick up a hardback edition of this text if you can. The dust jacket, actually folds out to be a miniaturized version of the very map that much of the book is about. It is quite helpful to reference while reading the book, something I did quite a few times.
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LibraryThing member Eye_Gee
It's hard to imagine a time (not so long ago) when virtually everyone believed the world was created just as explained in the Bible. William Smith, a surveyor, was the first to recognize that the patterns he observed in the earth -- the layers of soil and the fossils found in them -- represented a history. His crowning achievement was a map of England that plots the geography of the country. His life was a series of ups and downs that read like a novel. He was not high-born, but he became a friend and colleague of many members of upper class society as a result of his knowledge and understanding of the natural world. A great read for anyone interested in history or geography.… (more)
LibraryThing member Helenliz
This is a nice pacy factual book that kept me occupied during 2 flights (no easy thing - not a happy flyer). It's one of those classic 18th century tales where there's science, religion, class, prejudice money and, out of the mess and shambles comes something that is really mind blowing. William Smith produced the first geological survey of the UK. All by himself. And a small version is reproduced on the inside front cover and it's a real thing of beauty - the colour, shading and texture is fabulous, as well as being remarkably similar to the British Geological Survey's edition of the 1990s that graces the rear cover.
It's set during that great upheaval in science, when Britain finally moved from being a medieval belief led society to one that valued science, facts, precision, deduction and started wanting to ask questions of the natural world. this is one example. It was driven by his being involved in the coal mining industry, then in the routing and digging of a canal through Somerset. What he'd seen by the vertical descent into the ground of the mines was reinforced by what he'd seen in the cut made across miles of Somerset - the rocks beneath our feet are different, but predictably different in different places.
It's got it's fair share of trials and tribulations, and the class system comes in for a fair old (and entirely justified) bashing, but Smith doesn't always seem to be the most astute of individuals. Even so, it's nice to see that he did finally get the recognition he deserved in his lifetime - even if he seems to have been largely forgotten since. Simon Winchester does write a good story, as well as managing to get some facts to stick in your brain at the same time. I thought this was a good read.
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LibraryThing member bethlea
A biography of William Smith who was the first to map the geolocical features of England. His work paved the way to understanding the changes the world has undergone.
LibraryThing member nmaloney
I am glad I read this because I knew nothing of Geology before. It wasn't an easy read, but I learned alot.
LibraryThing member lyzadanger
What I hoped would be an educational, historical read about geology turned out instead to be mostly an elegiac to the alleged personal brilliance and, well, worthiness of the early 19th century geologic pioneer, William Smith. I dove in wishing for details, what I got was spates of almost whimpering testimonial about how slighted the morally unassailable Mr. Smith was by his colleagues and the general churchiness of his contemporary puritan English society. Basically: Think biography here, not history or geology, and you'll have more accurate expectations.

While I agree with most of Winchester's arguments--religion stood in the way of deeper scientific inspection, for example, he had a tendency to repeat them so often that, even as an adherent to the concept, I was put off. I should have counted how many times he repeated the notion that drawing-room dandies and dilettante geologists of the nascent Geological Society were BAD, and the practical, muddy, romanticized "real" geologists like Mr. Smith were where it was at. Tiring.

There were brief runs of interesting historical fact and glimpses into Regency life that made it tolerable. It also ended on a cheerful note, which was reassuring.
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LibraryThing member GoofyOcean110
First off, what a gorgeous map. Second, this is a great account of an interesting life with several ups and downs. Told masterfully, though perhaps a bit repetitively, Winchester has once again solidly interested me in a subject about which I care not one whit.
LibraryThing member Redhope
I was drawn to this book after hearing an interview with Simon Winchester on the radio. He prompted memories of a map on the wall in my middle school geography class in England during the 1970's....For someone with very limited interest in geology (how dry can this subject be?) this book kept me interested and entertained. Many readers may not appreciate how hugely powerful the upper class were during this time, controlling the sciences, art, industry, politics etc. This makes Smith's story all the more amazing.… (more)
LibraryThing member eas311
not as good as Professor & the Madman. But still pretty awesome. Winchester makes things that ought to be boring fascinating.
LibraryThing member Othemts
I read Winchester because he writes scientific brain candy - meaning serious stuff that is easy to read - but this book is more of a formal biography of William Smith, credited as one of the founders of the discipline of geology. It was a bit dull at parts, I found it hard to stay focused at times, but Winchester does liven it up a bit with amazing facts and a personal interlude. Still, it's a bit over the top to keep writing books about the most INFLUENTIAL and OVERLOOKED persons of all time.… (more)
LibraryThing member JBD1
One of Winchester's best. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member littererchewer
I knew nothing at all about William Smith, so this was interesting stuff. It's entertainingly written. I did not worry too much about the geological details, as I knew I would never remember them. But it is an interesting story even if you do not know your ammonites from your belemnites or your mesozoic from your cenozoic. As Winchester says, it's amazing that Smith could put this map together all by himself, in the early 1800s, with very little education or financial backing. He should serve as an inspiration to the rest of us.… (more)
LibraryThing member PlankGeek
This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in biology or geology, because it lays out the historical foundation upon which later scientific discoveries (such as Darwin's theory of evolution) are based. The story is interesting on its own merits, so it will also appeal to those without a science background, and you don't need to be a science geek to appreciate the story. This is a revealing look at the theological battle between the creationist dogma and scientific theories of the early 19th century, as well as the British social and class structures of the time.… (more)
LibraryThing member michdubb
Interesting.. but there is a lot of heavyy details.
LibraryThing member wdwilson3
If reading about a turning point in the way we view the world interests you, you should read this biography of William Smith. One of the pioneers of modern geology, Smith rose from humble origins to systematically map the geology of England. In doing so, he correlated the fossils uniquely found in each stratum, setting the stage for evolutionary theory. It is arguable that Smith made as much of an impact on our world view as Darwin.

I listened to the CD version of this book, read by author Simon Winchester. Not only is the narration excellent, but this spared me from stumbling over the geological terms. Not that this is a textbook – you probably won’t be able to recite the order of the strata in England after reading/listening, but Winchester was trained as a geologist, so you can trust his technical grasp of the issues, even if you don’t particularly care. The book deals with the personal and professional struggles that Smith dealt with to get his work and his theories accepted and rewarded. It was a lifelong struggle, and one not fully recognized until near the end of Smith’s life.

Winchester’s book lags a bit towards the end, when he describes Smith’s gradually reduced circumstances, bankruptcy, and years of vagabond life. These chapters are far less interesting than the intellectual breakthrough he made earlier in his life. Nonetheless, I’d give this book a thumbs up for the light it sheds on an important scientific and intellectual advance.
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LibraryThing member WaxPoetic
There is so much in this book that I enjoyed. The subject matter is interesting and timely. I think it would be an fantastic addition to any reading list dealing with the mid 19th Century. It is an unexpected adventure and travelogue while still being very much about one man's attempts to find his place in a world that needed and wanted his talents, but that rejected him for his social class.

It is as much about the power of observation and careful recording as it is about the weakness of character defined by class distinction. The issue of class may seem very foreign to many, or at least, inappropriate in the academy, but I believe that there have always been ways of separating people from each other, and academia struggles with those separations no less than any other realm of life. The science of geology suffered because of the the unwillingness of some people acknowledge the validity of a person's work based on his lack of 'proper education.' That is a tragedy that reached farther than one person, or one group of people.

The 1860's saw so much change in thought and technology and industry, it is a time that becomes more and more complex with every book I read.

The writing is strong and the author is thorough. It is difficult at first to face the exhaustive talk of coal-mining and the industry surrounding it, but well worth the effort. I was frustrated at what I believed to be an over-emphasis on the class issues. By the time the book was finished, I understood why he made that choice. He was making a point that maybe could have used a lighter touch. The injustice was so great, though, that it does make sense.

This book is a strong and well-researched addition to any library of geology, the history of science or the 19th century.
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LibraryThing member hcubic
If the name "Simon Winchester" sounds familiar, it is probably because of his recent bestseller, "The Professor and the Madman", the history of how the Oxford English Dictionary was originally compiled. It is supposed to be very good, but I haven't had a chance to read it myself yet. However, my experience with "The Map..." strongly inclines me toward reading that other one as well. Mr. Winchester does an excellent job of bringing to life not only the obsession of William Smith to publish a lifetime of work in the first geological map of England, but also the milieu in which he worked. Perhaps Winchester slightly exaggerates the singularity of his main character, and gives him a bit more credit than he deserves, for putting together ideas that had been going through the minds of others of the time. But there is no minimizing his painstaking effort to gather the data that would constitute his opus. This is a book that makes the relatively slow-moving science of geology come to life.… (more)
LibraryThing member dvf1976
This book reminds me that I missed a few classes in Ms. Liles middle school science class, so my knowledge of geological epochs is limited.

Besides that it's a bit boring.

Not as good as 'The Professor and the Madman' (also by Simon Winchester).


Original publication date


Physical description

xix, 329 p.; 22 cm


0060193611 / 9780060193614


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