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In 1793, a canal digger named William Smith made a startling discovery. He found that by tracing the placement of fossils, which he uncovered in his excavations, one could follow layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell -- clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world -- making it possible, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the hidden underside In 1793, a canal digger named William Smith made a startling discovery. He found that by tracing the placement of fossils, which he uncovered in his excavations, one could follow layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell -- clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world -- making it possible, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the hidden underside of the earth. Determined to expose what he realized was the landscape's secret fourth dimension, Smith spent twenty-two years piecing together the fragments of this unseen universe to create an epochal and remarkably beautiful hand-painted map. But instead of receiving accolades and honors, he ended up in debtors' prison, the victim of plagiarism, and virtually homeless for ten years more. Finally, in 1831, this quiet genius -- now known as the father of modern geology -- received the Geological Society of London's highest award and King William IV offered him a lifetime pension. The Map That Changed the World is a very human tale of endurance and achievement, of one man's dedication in the face of ruin. With a keen eye and thoughtful detail, Simon Winchester unfolds the poignant sacrifice behind this world-changing discovery.


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In 1793, a canal digger named William Smith made a startling discovery. He found that by tracing the placement of fossils, which he uncovered in his excavations, one could follow layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell -- clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world -- making it possible, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the hidden underside In 1793, a canal digger named William Smith made a startling discovery. He found that by tracing the placement of fossils, which he uncovered in his excavations, one could follow layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell -- clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world -- making it possible, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the hidden underside of the earth. Determined to expose what he realized was the landscape's secret fourth dimension, Smith spent twenty-two years piecing together the fragments of this unseen universe to create an epochal and remarkably beautiful hand-painted map. But instead of receiving accolades and honors, he ended up in debtors' prison, the victim of plagiarism, and virtually homeless for ten years more. Finally, in 1831, this quiet genius -- now known as the father of modern geology -- received the Geological Society of London's highest award and King William IV offered him a lifetime pension. The Map That Changed the World is a very human tale of endurance and achievement, of one man's dedication in the face of ruin. With a keen eye and thoughtful detail, Simon Winchester unfolds the poignant sacrifice behind this world-changing discovery.

30 review for The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology

  1. 4 out of 5

    Trevor

    This is the third Winchester book I’ve read in quick succession and I’m almost tempted to say that they just get better and better – except they probably don’t. I think they are all equally good. This one is about the ‘father of English Geology’. If the advance of knowledge really does depend on the geniuses who can see patterns where for the rest of us see only chaos – then William Smith is precisely that kind of genius: a man who ‘gets it’ and forever changes how we see the world. I’ll admit it This is the third Winchester book I’ve read in quick succession and I’m almost tempted to say that they just get better and better – except they probably don’t. I think they are all equally good. This one is about the ‘father of English Geology’. If the advance of knowledge really does depend on the geniuses who can see patterns where for the rest of us see only chaos – then William Smith is precisely that kind of genius: a man who ‘gets it’ and forever changes how we see the world. I’ll admit it. I’m partial to stories where the good guy wins out in the end – particularly after being faced with absurd odds. I even like stories where the guy gets the girl (or vice versa). And this book does end ‘happily even after’ – except… I didn’t come away from this book feeling particularly good about humanity. Especially not that section of humanity that is the ‘upper class’. As Winchester says during the book, it was almost as if the rich felt Smith needed to be taught a lesson for having the audacity of being both lower class and having worked out the secrets of geology before his betters. Why is it that so often – if one person has power over another person – the favourite game of those with power is humiliation? Smith was remarkably lucky in many respects – I mean, he ended up with a pension and with general respect – but for years he suffered and virtually no one lifted a finger to help him. And isn’t that the problem with systems of patronage? Even when all is done as stipulated and required one is left dangling at the whim of the patron. The humiliations Smith had to endure – most evident with the treatment meted out to him around the forced sale of his precious fossil collection – and the ‘costs’ to him of these humiliations (I mean costs in the literal sense and not just to his pride) were truly staggering. If you think the world is about 6000 years old I really couldn’t recommend this book to you – but then, besides the Bible, I couldn’t recommend any book to you. For everyone else, this really is an intensely interesting and deeply moving work. I’ve said it before – how is it possible that none of this guy’s books have been made into TV programmes? I’ve heard his talking books and I reckon he could be the David Attenborough of Geology and Lexicography. And if there is one thing the world definitely needs it is more David Attenboroughs. Come on BBC – get your finger out.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Margitte

    The official blurb says it the best: "In 1793, a canal digger named William Smith made a startling discovery. He found that by tracing the placement of fossils, which he uncovered in his excavations, one could follow layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell -- clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world -- making it possible, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the hidden underside of the earth. Determined to expose what he realized was the landscape's secret fourt The official blurb says it the best: "In 1793, a canal digger named William Smith made a startling discovery. He found that by tracing the placement of fossils, which he uncovered in his excavations, one could follow layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell -- clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world -- making it possible, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the hidden underside of the earth. Determined to expose what he realized was the landscape's secret fourth dimension, Smith spent twenty-two years piecing together the fragments of this unseen universe to create an epochal and remarkably beautiful hand-painted map. But instead of receiving accolades and honors, he ended up in debtors' prison, the victim of plagiarism, and virtually homeless for ten years more. Finally, in 1831, this quiet genius -- now known as the father of modern geology -- received the Geological Society of London's highest award and King William IV offered him a lifetime pension. The Map That Changed the World is a very human tale of endurance and achievement, of one man's dedication in the face of ruin. With a keen eye and thoughtful detail, Simon Winchester unfolds the poignant sacrifice behind this world-changing discovery. MY COMMENTS: Simon Winchester had William Smith's diaries to help him compile this detailed account of one man's struggle to open up the science of stratigraphy (geology). What should have been a joyous discovery, turned into one man's ceaseless war against his own humiliation and ill fortune, forced to waste his energies raging against the cheating and class discrimination that seemed, time and again, to frustrate him. The author kept the interest in the tale alive with his conversational tone throughout. Statements like these, brought a smile to my face: "It was left to the genial Irish prelate James Ussher, while he was bishop of Armagh, to fix the date with absolute precision. According to his workings, which he managed to convince his clerical colleagues were impeccably accurate, God had created the world and all its creatures in one swift and uninterrupted process of divine mechanics that began on the dot of the all-too-decent hour of 9 A.M., on a Monday, October 23, 4004 B.C." Suffice to say, William Smith's birth, on March 23, 1769, in the cottage on the edge of the green in Churchill, Oxfordshire, took place, according to their implacably held beliefs, exactly 5,772 years, four months, and sixteen days after the creation of the world. He was the first son of the local blacksmith in the hamlet of Churchill. It is within this social mileu that William Smith, with his interest in fossils and rocks, would draw up the first geological map of England and change the world of science forever. "It was a document that was to change the face of a science—indeed, to create a whole new science—to set in train a series of scientific movements that would lead, eventually, to the inquiries of Charles Darwin, to the birth of evolutionary theory, and to the burgeoning of an entirely new way for human beings to view their world and their universe. The inevitable collision between the new rationally based world of science and the old ecclesiastical, faith-directed world of belief was about to occur—and in the vanguard of the new movement, both symbolically and actually, was the great map, and now this equally enormous atlas that John Cary of the Strand was about to publish, and the revolutionary thinking that lay behind their making." A fascinating biography of a brilliant man. He did not have class, or money, or the right address, but he had the nerve to persist and win. Captivating. Entertaining. Excellent. To view a bigger version of the map CLICK HERE

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jay Schutt

    This book turned out to be something that I wasn't much interested in after all. But, it was interesting none the less. It was well-researched and well-written and deserved a better rating, maybe by someone interested in geology. It was about Englishman William Smith who was a common man with no wealth or title. He dedicated his life to mapping the underground of England during the Age of Enlightenment . His findings became very beneficial to the economy of England, but he gained little fame or f This book turned out to be something that I wasn't much interested in after all. But, it was interesting none the less. It was well-researched and well-written and deserved a better rating, maybe by someone interested in geology. It was about Englishman William Smith who was a common man with no wealth or title. He dedicated his life to mapping the underground of England during the Age of Enlightenment . His findings became very beneficial to the economy of England, but he gained little fame or fortune because of his class status. He ended up in debtors prison and only afterwards did he get the recognition he deserved. Then came the collision of religious beliefs and scientific reasoning with the discovery of fossils.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Howard

    5 Stars for The Map That Changed The World (audiobook) By Simon Winchester read by the author. This is one of my favorite nonfiction books. This is the story of the science of geology being discovered. This is about William Smith creating the first geographical map of Britain. And this new science was starting to challenge the church’s view that the earth was only a few thousand years old.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Allison Keith

    This is a thorough, engaging recounting of a fascinating historical figure whose late-recognised contributions to society paved the way for future revolutionary theories. William Smith, the Father of English Geology, is brought to life on the pages as a fully-fleshed man of depth and determination. Hardworking and with the ability to understand the stratigraphical evidence before him, Smith struggled against the antagonists of ecclesiastical belief and strict class structure. The politics, econo This is a thorough, engaging recounting of a fascinating historical figure whose late-recognised contributions to society paved the way for future revolutionary theories. William Smith, the Father of English Geology, is brought to life on the pages as a fully-fleshed man of depth and determination. Hardworking and with the ability to understand the stratigraphical evidence before him, Smith struggled against the antagonists of ecclesiastical belief and strict class structure. The politics, economics, and ingenuity of the Industrial Revolution are explored, and Smith’s work was right in the midst of the dynamic cultural shift from religious ideology to scientific reasoning. While the reading is disjointed chronologically at times, this fascinating biography is filled with primary source material and written with impeccable attention to detail and sly wit.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kirsty

    Despite having read and very much enjoying Simon Winchester’s The Alice Behind Wonderland, about Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it has taken me an awfully long time to pick up another book of his. I bought The Map That Changed the World: A Tale of Rocks, Ruin and Redemption from a Salvation Army bookshop a couple of years ago, intending to read it immediately, and for some reason it has languished on my to-read shelf ever since. The Map That C Despite having read and very much enjoying Simon Winchester’s The Alice Behind Wonderland, about Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it has taken me an awfully long time to pick up another book of his. I bought The Map That Changed the World: A Tale of Rocks, Ruin and Redemption from a Salvation Army bookshop a couple of years ago, intending to read it immediately, and for some reason it has languished on my to-read shelf ever since. The Map That Changed the World became an international bestseller following its publication in 2001, on the two-hundredth anniversary of Smith’s first map. The Spectator declares ‘Winchester is the perfect narrator for this lovely story of success against the odds’. The Financial Times calls the book ‘a fascinating tribute to the man who put the unseen world of the underground on display’, and the New Statesman comments ‘this is what a model of popular history can be.’ The Map That Changed the World tells the true story of William Smith. Though he was ‘not rich or well-connected’, his passion for fossils and ‘his twenty-year obsession with single-handedly mapping the geology of Britain’ mark him out as a man who should be praised. Smith, however, pursued his interests at great personal cost; his wife suffered madness, and his work was stolen by jealous men who eventually pushed him into ruin. Although Smith became ‘one of the most significant men of the nineteenth century’, he is largely forgotten in the modern world. ‘Strata’ Smith, as Winchester occasionally calls him, was a man who ‘crossed boundaries of class, wealth and science to produce a map that fundamentally changed the way we view the world.’ His first map was produced in 1801, and a revised version appeared in 1815. This later map hangs behind ‘a pair of huge sky-blue velvet curtains’ in Burlington House, London. It measures over eight by six feet, and is ‘the work of a craftsman, lovingly done, the culmination of years of study, months of careful labour.’ This was the first geological map of anywhere in the world, which alone ‘heralded the beginnings of a whole new science… It is a map that laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin.’ Smith’s output is remarkable for many a reason. Not only did he create the first geological map in the world, but he did so entirely by himself. In his prologue, Winchester writes: ‘All the Herculean labours that were involved in the mapping of the imagined underside of an entire country were accomplished not by an army or a legion or a committee or a team, but by the lone individual who finally put his signature to the completed document: William Smith, then forty-six years old, the orphaned son of the village blacksmith from the unsung hamlet of Churchill in Oxfordshire.’ In The Map That Changed the World, Winchester has conducted his own research into Smith and the social and scientific climate in which he lived. He has also included fragments of Smith’s diaries and letters, in order to present a portrait of a ‘long-forgotten man’. Winchester opens his account in 1819, when Smith is released from a London debtor’s prison known as the King’s Bench. The author both sets the scene and captures Smith for his readers immediately: ‘Some less-charitable souls might call him a rather plain-looking man, perhaps even a little ugly. His forehead slants backwards, a trifle alarmingly. His nose is rather too large for comfort. His mutton-chop whiskers are wayward. But in most of the pictures he seems to be wearing an expression that serves by way of compensation for the facial shortcomings: he seems by his looks at once tolerant, kindly and perhaps even vaguely amused by the dull complexities of his life.’ Winchester’s commentary then shifts backward in time to examine Smith’s life. He was born at the beginning of a period of immense change, in most fields. Winchester writes: ‘And when Smith was born, the rate and scale of alteration to society was such that even those in so small and isolated a settlement as Churchill, Oxfordshire, would be bound to notice.’ It is this which impacts upon Smith, urging him to leave his tiny hamlet as soon as he is able, to go and work on designing a network of canals. It was when Smith was employed at a mine near Bath that he really notices the differences in the rock structure of the earth. Winchester comments: ‘Smith could only stare at the junction between the rocks and wonder - why? How? How could one possibly make sense of such a bizarre arrangement?’ But make sense of it Smith did, refining his thoughts and research over time, and leading him to make a number of important, even pivotal, discoveries. The Map That Changed the World appealed to me on so many levels. I am always keen to learn about figures who have been largely forgotten over the centuries, and knowing very little about Smith piqued my interest. I was also a keen collector of fossils as a child, and very much enjoy cartography too. Here, Winchester has presented an engaging account of a man who so deserves to be remembered. He has included a wealth of extra information of interest to the reader, including a stratigraphical column with the timespan of each geological period; a glossary of terms; notes on sources; a list of recommended further reading; and an index. The frontispiece is adorned with a copy of Smith’s 1815 geological map. Winchester’s writing is engaging and highly accessible, and he wonderfully handles his primary material. Quite a dramatic tale in parts, The Map That Changed the World held my interest throughout, and whilst informative, it never felt overloaded with facts. Anyone remotely interested in cartography, geography, geology, or just the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, is bound to get a lot out of this wonderful book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

    This is a very interesting story poorly told. The preface and the first chapter (both) tell the whole story in a nutshell, and the rest of the book goes on to fill out the details in an awkward, often overblown manner. The story is however quite compelling, about the dramatic life of William Smith, the first person to understand, survey and then map the stratification of rocks in England, thereby establishing modern geology. His is a cautionary tale for would be entrepreneurs that are not from t This is a very interesting story poorly told. The preface and the first chapter (both) tell the whole story in a nutshell, and the rest of the book goes on to fill out the details in an awkward, often overblown manner. The story is however quite compelling, about the dramatic life of William Smith, the first person to understand, survey and then map the stratification of rocks in England, thereby establishing modern geology. His is a cautionary tale for would be entrepreneurs that are not from the moneyed classes (yes we still have them just they did in early 19th C. England). His reactions to continual snubbing by the upper classes and theft of his IP reminded me of more than one would-be startup CEO: overspending and overreaching in an attempt to play with the big boys of finance. If you can deal with Winchester's arch prose, it is worth the read. Ideally, someone would write one of those longish pieces in the New Yorker about the story - that is really all the material there really is, and a better written narrative would do the subject considerable benefit. [N.B. I read a reviewers' draft that might have been somewhat rougher than final copies - I can only hope so].

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lyn Elliott

    Winchester's biography of William Smith, one of the 'fathers' of English geology, should sing with the joy of intellectual discovery, but doesn't quite get there for me. From the start, Winchester flags the collapse of Smith's fortunes and the misappropriation of his findings by wealthier, better connected men than he. He builds anticipation of misfortune throughout until the bailiffs actually arrive and Smith is imprisoned for debt. When it actually happens it is almost a relief, as the long way Winchester's biography of William Smith, one of the 'fathers' of English geology, should sing with the joy of intellectual discovery, but doesn't quite get there for me. From the start, Winchester flags the collapse of Smith's fortunes and the misappropriation of his findings by wealthier, better connected men than he. He builds anticipation of misfortune throughout until the bailiffs actually arrive and Smith is imprisoned for debt. When it actually happens it is almost a relief, as the long way down has been an exhausting journey. For me, this overweighs excitement at the significance of Smith's realisations that the laying down of fossils in different strata of England's landscape marked the beginning of a modern scientific view of the earth's history as one marked by long periods of changing climate, flora and fauna; that species appeared and disappeared; and that the record of all these great changes lay in rocks and could be read. This challenged creation myths of all faiths, and must have influenced Charles Darwin's thinking as he worked towards his theory of evolution. Winchester may have written about this, but I confess to skipping through sections on Smith's struggles, and may have missed it.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kara Babcock

    Rocks. They’re old. Thank you for reading my review. OK, I guess I’ll go into slightly more detail. In his phenomenal A Short History of Nearly Everything , Bill Bryson devotes slightly less than a page to William Smith and the first geological map of Britain. This is likely a result of Bryson (or his editors) striving in vain to meet that promise of being “short”. Bryson promises us a more “comprehensive” account in The Map That Changed the World. I didn’t actually find this book through A Sho Rocks. They’re old. Thank you for reading my review. OK, I guess I’ll go into slightly more detail. In his phenomenal A Short History of Nearly Everything , Bill Bryson devotes slightly less than a page to William Smith and the first geological map of Britain. This is likely a result of Bryson (or his editors) striving in vain to meet that promise of being “short”. Bryson promises us a more “comprehensive” account in The Map That Changed the World. I didn’t actually find this book through A Short History of Nearly Everything; I only saw the reference when I went back to look up what Bryson has to say about Smith. One day I casually stumbled upon the story of William Smith, fossils, and rocks, and this seemed like the sensible book to buy in order to learn more. This guess largely turned out to be correct, with some minor quibbles and caveats. Much like Longitude , another non-fiction book that I read recently, The Map That Changed the World is a semi-biographical look at the contributions of one man to a field of scientific study—in this case, geology. By definition it attributes to William Smith an importance that might be overstated, in the sense that English geology seemed to be doing fine without him and probably would have continued doing fine if he hadn’t come on the scene. Yet it’s true that Smith’s contributions are both important and, considering his background and his often penurious circumstances, all the more outstanding. If one wants to examine how one individual affected a scientific discipline, few choices would be more appropriate than William Smith. Simon Winchester begins by describing Smith’s release from debtor’s prison before jumping back to his origins and start as a surveyor in rural England. As with most endeavours, Smith’s come to fruition through a careful combination of skill, hard work, and luck. Sometimes he’s in the right place at the right time to get a job that lets him travel around England, looking at layers of rock—such is the case with his position surveying for the new Somerset Canal. As Winchester unfolds Smith’s life before us, we get to see how the economics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries played a role in shaping scientific inquiry. The vast, industrial scope of coal mining gave Smith both the access and the reason to delve deep beneath the Earth and look at layers of strata. More importantly, the rich upper class’ interest in being able to find coal before digging up their property provided an economic interest in Smith’s studies. Although it certainly seems like Smith was both clever and dedicated, I can’t help but form the impression that he also happened to be born at the right time, and in the right country. England, Winchester explains, was ripe for a revolution in scientific thinking. And Smith’s discovery that fossils are the key indicators of a rock’s type and age would begin that revolution. If Smith is correct, then the Earth is not six thousand years old. It’s far, far older. This was not the popular view in Smith’s time and would not be for some time after his death—as Winchester is careful to point out, Smith himself did not care to go so far as to posit how or why stratification occurs the way it does. He just reported what he had observed, and used it to make useful predictions. But it was a start, a beginning in a chain of reasoning that would lead geologists to speculate that the Earth’s past extends into the millions and billions of years, and culminate in Charles Darwin publishing a controversial treatise about the origins of humankind. The way that Smith and so many scientists clung to the Biblical interpretation of the origins and age of the Earth stayed on my mind as I read this book. Although I’m an atheist, I do not view science and religion as irreconcilable. However, people who subscribe to fundamentalism but also claim to be adherents of science do puzzle me. There are, to put it lightly, contradictions between these two schools of thought. And with science, as with fundamentalism, it seems to me that it is hypocritical to pick and choose. What makes science so enduring, so potent—dare I say, so sexy—is that everything is interconnected in incredibly complex and interesting ways. So Smith’s ideas lead inexorably to this idea that the Earth is much older than six thousand years. Our ability to calculate, now, things like the speed and direction of motion of planets and satellites and even stars lets us “turn the clock back”, so to speak, and look at the solar system thousands or even millions of years ago. Fundamentalists reject all these claims and come up with very creative ways of doing so. But many watch television. Many use cars. Many wear glasses and take medicine. These are all a result of the same science that tells us the Earth is ancient and the stars themselves gave us life. How can one accept all the more mundane marvels but reject the other ones and still claim to be consistent? (Obviously it’s very easy if one does not claim consistency, but for some reason people get offended when you go up to them, call them a hypocrite, and begin itemizing contradictions in their personal belief system….) But I digress. The Map That Changed the World got me thinking about science, the nature of science and how we do science, as any good science history book should do. It also chronicles the difficulties Smith faced as he began working on his geological map. Some of these were difficulties of his own making—he lived as if he were well off and had a stable income, and he married a wife who was an emotional and financial burden. Some were a product of the still-rigid class system, wherein Smith was an uneducated country bumpkin, and upstart whose contributions should be overlooked whenever possible and stolen if not. The story of how George Greenough blocked Smith from membership in the fledgling Geological Society—which was, after all, just supposed to be a dinner club for gentlemen—and then plagiarized from Smith’s map to produce one of lesser utility on behalf of the Society is exactly the type of dirty scientific feud I love to read about. And Winchester delivers on all of these accounts. I also loved reading about Smith’s dedication to this singular task. He travelled all across England and Wales to compile observations and evidence for this map! Granted, England isn’t quite as large as, say, Canada—but he did this on foot or by coach. And he had to go into the field, dig into the mud, get dirty, day after day for decades in order to get the data he required. For that alone he deserves a medal! A note about the map at the beginning of this book remarks that its similarity to modern maps is all the more impressive because it is the work of one man, whereas modern maps are the work of large, coordinated teams. This is a keen observation. Despite being terrible with money, unlucky in love, and reluctant to publish until it was almost too late, William Smith was a profoundly hard worker. I’m not quite certain I’m as eager to buy into Winchester’s attempts to turn this into a discussion over the gulf between fieldworkers and theorists, but at the very least, it made me, as an armchair mathematician extraordinaire, feel very lazy! There are a few aspects of Winchester’s writing style that marred my otherwise unqualified enjoyment of this book. He is overly-enamoured of the passive voice. It kept reappearing, feeling very out of place by dint of Winchester’s attempt to give his account a sweeping, narrative arc. Also, while Winchester is very diligent about noting when we have evidence available to us and when something is mere speculation, he does like to indulge in considerable parenthetical digressions about what might have motivated Smith to do one thing or another. That is to say, he injects too many of his own conjectures and opinions about Smith for my own liking. I’m not sure how to say this without saying I would have preferred a drier account. I kept comparing Winchester unfavourably to Bryson, who always seems to manage to make the subject of his writing the focus of any sentence rather than his own thoughts on the matter. This is a nicely designed book, with some cool illustrations, and my edition has a colour plate in the middle depicting a map. (Alas, it’s so small that the detail is almost indecipherable.) Yet it probably could have been shorter. Winchester includes an entire chapter that is nothing but an interlude describing his childhood fascination with fossils along the cliffs of Dover. It’s informative in its own way, and I suppose for some readers it might be the highlight of the book; for me, however, it was a distraction from the main story of William Smith. Coupled with Winchester’s tendency to hop through the chronology—occasionally in vexing ways—in order to highlight certain themes, thereby repeating or relating some facts more than once, and The Map That Changed the World is slightly long-winded. Neither of these criticisms are enough to stop me from recommending this book to others, mind you. I’m not as certain I will read other things by Winchester, but I’ll take a look at his catalogue and see if anything else piques my interest. This is far from a perfect book, and there were times when I found my mind wandering to other topics or found myself cursing the overabundance of passive constructions. Overall, though, The Map That Changed the World is a detailed and passionate account of the life of William Smith and his contributions to English geology. It has its rough patches. But it promises to tell the story of how one map changed everything, and in this respect, the book definitely succeeds.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Will Byrnes

    This is the tale of William Smith, the first guy to create a geologic map. He identified the strata that makes up what comprises the ground for quite a ways down and figured out that it was standard. The story is an interesting one, about a poor bastard beset by the rich types who stole his work and denied him the credit he so deserved, to the point where the guy actually was consigned to debtor’s prison. His social life was even less successful. Late in life he married a much younger woman of f This is the tale of William Smith, the first guy to create a geologic map. He identified the strata that makes up what comprises the ground for quite a ways down and figured out that it was standard. The story is an interesting one, about a poor bastard beset by the rich types who stole his work and denied him the credit he so deserved, to the point where the guy actually was consigned to debtor’s prison. His social life was even less successful. Late in life he married a much younger woman of fragile psychological stability. She was an added burden. Her maladies included nymphomania. This is not a book for the average reader. Perhaps a geeky orientation might be desirable to truly enjoy this book. And I found that it sagged towards the end. I would recommend it, but not to just anyone.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Victor Sonkin

    This is an account of the life of William Smith, who more or less single-handedly, without any special means or education, and much against the spirit of the time (before Lyell, let alone Darwin) created and perfected the first geological map of Great Britain (minus Scotland, more or less); the map the book tells about was published in 1815, but recognition only came to Smith a generation later, when he received the first Wollaston medal (the first of its kind; to this day, this is more or less This is an account of the life of William Smith, who more or less single-handedly, without any special means or education, and much against the spirit of the time (before Lyell, let alone Darwin) created and perfected the first geological map of Great Britain (minus Scotland, more or less); the map the book tells about was published in 1815, but recognition only came to Smith a generation later, when he received the first Wollaston medal (the first of its kind; to this day, this is more or less the equivalent of the Nobel prize in geology). The book is just as it presents itself and as it should be: clear, well told, with small but relevant digressions, well-researched and everything.

  12. 4 out of 5

    BellaGBear

    This is truly a beautifull homage for a man who gained recognition for his work very late in his own life. This is a scientific non-fiction book, but the way it is told it reads like a great adventure novel of the 'quest towards a geological map', which is in my opinion has been a very good choice to tell the story. Also it is obvious that the author is a fan of William Smith and his work which made this a very happy book to read because the author has so much compassions for Smith's trials. Beca This is truly a beautifull homage for a man who gained recognition for his work very late in his own life. This is a scientific non-fiction book, but the way it is told it reads like a great adventure novel of the 'quest towards a geological map', which is in my opinion has been a very good choice to tell the story. Also it is obvious that the author is a fan of William Smith and his work which made this a very happy book to read because the author has so much compassions for Smith's trials. Because of its adventurous vibe this book is very accesible also for readers who do not know anything about geology (like me). I do not pretend I understood the whole book, but the more technicial parts I could easily skip in favour of the story. So recommended for everyone with a general like for science; maps; geology or everyone who loves a story with an adventurous, altough a bit naive, protagenist, betrayal and a fitting reward at the end for the good guy.

  13. 4 out of 5

    cameron

    Though the writing style is not quite what his other books have been, I have to give it 4 stars for a thoroughly interesting trek through the world of eccentric 19thC English science. I love this period's history of scientific exploration and the pure enthusiasm and fearlessness and determination of many of the explorations into hitherto unknown realms. Geology was practically brand new except for elite, upper class fossil, mineral and rock collectors who met occasionally at elaborate dinner par Though the writing style is not quite what his other books have been, I have to give it 4 stars for a thoroughly interesting trek through the world of eccentric 19thC English science. I love this period's history of scientific exploration and the pure enthusiasm and fearlessness and determination of many of the explorations into hitherto unknown realms. Geology was practically brand new except for elite, upper class fossil, mineral and rock collectors who met occasionally at elaborate dinner parties and drank and talked but did little or no field studies. Then along comes this nobody who for 20 years is crawling around engineered trenches and digging below the surfaces and who makes the most formative, huge, hand colored map of all of the British Isles and what lay beneath the green heath. In come the aristocrats to discredit him. Wonderful read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Kristi Thielen

    I have read Simon Winchester’s superb book once before but reread it because the story of William Smith is so compelling. The humbly-born Smith is widely regarded as the father of geology, and labored diligently in the early 19th century to learn about the geology of Great Britain and eventually create “The Great Map,” the original of which now hangs in the Burlington House, in London. Smith’s science was far ahead of its time, when most earth “scientists” were wealthy dilletantes who scorned th I have read Simon Winchester’s superb book once before but reread it because the story of William Smith is so compelling. The humbly-born Smith is widely regarded as the father of geology, and labored diligently in the early 19th century to learn about the geology of Great Britain and eventually create “The Great Map,” the original of which now hangs in the Burlington House, in London. Smith’s science was far ahead of its time, when most earth “scientists” were wealthy dilletantes who scorned those, like Smith, who actually labored in the field to learn what they knew. And even these gentlemen were wedded to the Biblical idea of the earth’s age and unwilling to accept the deep time that Smith’s findings would support. It would be churlish to overly criticize Smith’s poor decisions: a habit of buying homes and property he couldn’t keep up and a very ill-advised marriage; for his life was a series of frustrations and humiliations entirely out of his control. Snobbery, professional jealousy, associations that failed him and peers who stole his work led to a sad downfall. But his life eventually takes a turn for the brighter and this makes his story a dramatic but satisfying one. In and around Smith’s life story, the author provides very readable and interesting detail about the geology of Great Britain and the beginnings of the science itself. Highly recommended!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Dov Zeller

    When I was a New York manny (before moving to western MA to go to grad school) one of the families I worked for gave me this book. I think I was probably supposed to return it, but wound up having to leave NY in a hurry because of a health and then a housing situation. So I still have this on my non-fiction shelves and every once in a while pick it up and flip through the pages and think about the "discovery" (such a loaded and often unwieldy term) of the consistent and patterned behavior of ear When I was a New York manny (before moving to western MA to go to grad school) one of the families I worked for gave me this book. I think I was probably supposed to return it, but wound up having to leave NY in a hurry because of a health and then a housing situation. So I still have this on my non-fiction shelves and every once in a while pick it up and flip through the pages and think about the "discovery" (such a loaded and often unwieldy term) of the consistent and patterned behavior of earth's sedimentary layers and one man in particular who took that information and ran with it (though sometimes into walls and closed doors). Many goodreads reviewers are less than satisfied with the delivery of this book, and I hear that. There are also some notices of misinformation. And others argue that there is enough substance in here for a pamphlet but not necessarily a book-length manuscript. I think all of these things are fair points to make, but I still found that the book was enjoyable and educational. So, somewhere between a 3 and a 4.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Gale

    I have been reading this book for over a year. The story is fascinating. Winchester has the most irritating writing style I have ever encountered. It is hard to force myself to pick up the book. Sad, because William Smith and his geologic map of England mark an important milestone in the history of science. They are also important to understanding the development of the concept of deep time. Creationists are often stymied when they learn that Smith was able to use fossil species to place the roc I have been reading this book for over a year. The story is fascinating. Winchester has the most irritating writing style I have ever encountered. It is hard to force myself to pick up the book. Sad, because William Smith and his geologic map of England mark an important milestone in the history of science. They are also important to understanding the development of the concept of deep time. Creationists are often stymied when they learn that Smith was able to use fossil species to place the rock strata in time order long before the theory of evolution by natural selection was even a gleam in Darwin's eye.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Stephie Williams

    This is a book about William Smith who figured out that only certain fossils are found in certain strata, and you could use this information to created a vertical map of the earth underneath our feet or below ground. For this he used his surveying skills and multitudes of physical observations in the English countryside. His life was not so smooth. He went from employment to self-employment, which gave him more time and freedom to explore and study what he was finding. At times his jobs would br This is a book about William Smith who figured out that only certain fossils are found in certain strata, and you could use this information to created a vertical map of the earth underneath our feet or below ground. For this he used his surveying skills and multitudes of physical observations in the English countryside. His life was not so smooth. He went from employment to self-employment, which gave him more time and freedom to explore and study what he was finding. At times his jobs would bring in a nice bit of money, but not always. This eventually ended him up in debtor's prison because he could not keep up with his mortgages and rents. He was eventually let out of debtor’s prison, which were mild confinements compared to regular prisons, and slowly people started to recognize the importance of his work and the map that he worked for most of his life. Without him geology and evolutionary theory would have taken more time to become settled sciences. I only have one comments on a part of the text. Brackets [] show page number with the Kindle edition pagination. [173] In mentioning the delay of radiographic dating in relation to ammonite fossils he states, “. . . more or less exactly 178 million years ago.” (my italics) In seems exceedingly odd that you would use a phrase like “more or less” in combination with “exactly” for such a high figure. Anyway I got kick out of reading this. Simon Winchester has written another very good book. It does not matter what his subject is he explains it well and perhaps writes even better. My favorites of his are the two on the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (the go to academic dictionary). I think anybody who likes good writing would enjoy this book, unless they cannot stand the topic.

  18. 4 out of 5

    David

    William Smith is one of those characters from the English industrial revolution who led such a fascinating life, that it is surprising that he hasn't more biographers. The only other that I have encountered is a much earlier work by John L Morton which are harder to obtain. Many, especially the Scots, would disagree with the claim that Smith was the father of modern geology. Most, myself included, would bestow that accolade on James Hutton. However, for my money, William Smith's is a better stor William Smith is one of those characters from the English industrial revolution who led such a fascinating life, that it is surprising that he hasn't more biographers. The only other that I have encountered is a much earlier work by John L Morton which are harder to obtain. Many, especially the Scots, would disagree with the claim that Smith was the father of modern geology. Most, myself included, would bestow that accolade on James Hutton. However, for my money, William Smith's is a better story and of interest to those who did not previously have the slightest interest in rocks. It is the life story of much flawed character with the single-minded, stubborn determination, common to the genius irrespective of their chosen field. Give it a try, you might be.pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed it so much i even went to see the map!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mark Hartzer

    One of the things that age imparts is showing you how little you really know. Despite loving geology, and having a father who taught world geography for 30+ years, I had never heard of William Smith. Not only had I not heard of Smith, but I had never put 2 + 2 together enough to realize that geological ages and rock formations are mostly determined by FOSSILS. Duh! (at least to me anyway). ie., certain mollusks in a particular layer of limestone are never found above that layer, etc... One man, One of the things that age imparts is showing you how little you really know. Despite loving geology, and having a father who taught world geography for 30+ years, I had never heard of William Smith. Not only had I not heard of Smith, but I had never put 2 + 2 together enough to realize that geological ages and rock formations are mostly determined by FOSSILS. Duh! (at least to me anyway). ie., certain mollusks in a particular layer of limestone are never found above that layer, etc... One man, on his own, figured this out. In 1801. I'm ashamed I had not heard of this previously, but I suspect I had, but was too busy thinking about girls, cars, music, or whatever in the day. Smith compiled a map of England completely on his own showing how the underlying rocks, or strata, explain the topography. In other words, why there is coal in Newcastle, but not in London. Back in the early 19th century, the big landowners were obviously interested to know if they had coal under their vast estates. I won't summarize the book, but Mr. Winchester does an admirable job explaining why Smith's map still hangs in the British Museum. I had no idea. Anyway, this book obviously focuses on Great Britain, so many of the place names were unfamiliar. I enjoyed looking up the various locations. The city of Scarborough where Smith spent a number of happy years is yes, the same one known in song. A worthwhile read. I liked it.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Trish

    Fascinating, if a little heavy in places.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Baal Of

    I like maps, and I have as far back as I can remember. As a kid I would linger over maps in the encyclopedia, particularly those maps that described terrain, geology, natural resources, etc. so I was bound to like this book, especially considering the dust jacket is a fold-out, full-color reproduction of the map under discussion. This book, with its somewhat hyperbolic title, is a mix of biography, history, and science, and it is particularly good reminder of just how rough and contentious the b I like maps, and I have as far back as I can remember. As a kid I would linger over maps in the encyclopedia, particularly those maps that described terrain, geology, natural resources, etc. so I was bound to like this book, especially considering the dust jacket is a fold-out, full-color reproduction of the map under discussion. This book, with its somewhat hyperbolic title, is a mix of biography, history, and science, and it is particularly good reminder of just how rough and contentious the beginnings of a new area of science can be. I found two primary scenes of conflict in this book: that between religion and scientific progress, and that between classes, specifically the moneyed elite vs the working class. Smith's work on understanding the actual age of the rocks and the fossils was considered ungodly since it contradicted the received wisdom of that age that the earth was about 6000 years old. and yet he allowed the evidence to guide his thought processes, collecting specimens, and organizing the data in such a way as to reveal the true age of the rocks, in good scientific fashion. The other conflict played out in numerous ways, including the co-opting of original work by Smith, who was considered of lower class, by others who were in the upper class. The repeated spurning of Smith by the various Societies of the time was also a direct result of class stratification, only rectified very late in his life. Through it all shone the light of Smith's ceasing hard work, constant traveling, and collecting samples. His obsessive attention to detail when producing the actual map, which is a thing of beauty. This story has perhaps too many details about Smith's personal life, for example his difficult marriage that from my perspective seemed pretty devoid of love, but for other readers these personal details probably make the story more poignant. Overall this book was satisfying and edifying, and I enjoyed learning something about this overlooked historical figure.

  22. 5 out of 5

    S.

    MAP is 3/5 because half of it is geology and most people are not fascinated by geology. so, it's a weaker Winchester book although apparently the crowd disagrees and rates it 3rd in overall popularity. in fact, according to GR, it's half as popular as Krakatoa and twice or even four times the Winchester back catalogue. SW is eminently readable, and although I'm just about finished all the paperbacks stacked up on my bookshelf, Noble Lordships is proving sort of a slog. so I guess I get to summari MAP is 3/5 because half of it is geology and most people are not fascinated by geology. so, it's a weaker Winchester book although apparently the crowd disagrees and rates it 3rd in overall popularity. in fact, according to GR, it's half as popular as Krakatoa and twice or even four times the Winchester back catalogue. SW is eminently readable, and although I'm just about finished all the paperbacks stacked up on my bookshelf, Noble Lordships is proving sort of a slog. so I guess I get to summarize Simon Winchester in this review. the thing about SW is that he's that bright kid with thick glasses eager about geology while everyone else is starting to get pimples and become interested in the other sex. there's a quality of innocence in S. Winchester that accounts for his wide-ranging academic interest, and allows him to be so fascinated in the OED, for example, that he wrote two books about it. it takes a special person to write a book about, well, rocks, and to research the stories, intrigues, and culture of the time. S.W. both a scientific mind and a good writer, is a unique constellation of talents. so the eccentric sweep of his works and his lifetime in journalism both combine to create an ouevre that is both remarkable and composed of extremely quick reads. a lot of writers who have multiple specialties (whether it be they write medical thrillers on the one hand and travel fiction on the other) are only appealing in one genre. Simon Winchester is a strong travel writer and he's strong in the historical academia he also specializes in. even this 3 wasn't horrible-- you just skipped the geology sections and went on to the drama and culture parts. I strongly recommend this great author to the reading public.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sam

    This is a brilliantly readable account of the life of William Smith and how his efforts helped in the establishment of one of the most all encompassing sciences, Geology. As a result of his efforts mines were opened, canals built and the industrial heritage of the UK was set. Winchester has researched the subject well and has a passion for both the man and the science that infects the reader from start to finish. While I didn't enjoy this as much as some of his other books, for reasons I can't q This is a brilliantly readable account of the life of William Smith and how his efforts helped in the establishment of one of the most all encompassing sciences, Geology. As a result of his efforts mines were opened, canals built and the industrial heritage of the UK was set. Winchester has researched the subject well and has a passion for both the man and the science that infects the reader from start to finish. While I didn't enjoy this as much as some of his other books, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, it is still a thoroughly good read with superb supporting illustrations, footnotes and background information. The glossary at the back clarifies some of the terminology for those who are not so familiar with the subject without being condescending or patronising and the bibliography has some great suggestions for further reading. Overall another great book from a brilliant science writer.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Patty

    I don't really know what possessed me to listen to this book. Yes, I enjoyed his book The Professor and the Madman and yes, I was desperate for a talking book, but really a book about a man who figured out how to map England below ground? Well to be honest, it was fascinating. Occasionally I had trouble following the science and sometimes I wondered if the book had maps or pictures that I would be interested in. Neither of these things were a real problem. Whenever I would think it was time to qu I don't really know what possessed me to listen to this book. Yes, I enjoyed his book The Professor and the Madman and yes, I was desperate for a talking book, but really a book about a man who figured out how to map England below ground? Well to be honest, it was fascinating. Occasionally I had trouble following the science and sometimes I wondered if the book had maps or pictures that I would be interested in. Neither of these things were a real problem. Whenever I would think it was time to quit or actually read the book, Winchester would talk about something that really caught my attention. I don't still know why this book seemed like the right choice at the time, but it was. I now know a bunch of irrelevant facts about the geology of Great Britain and I had a fun time learning them.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Heidi Burkhart

    I had never heard of William Smith, a famous geologist, in the late 1700's and early 1800's. At first it was hard to get into the book, but I grew quite interested in the story as time passed. Smith's life was full of ups and downs, and is especially interesting to realize that his career advancement and recognition was actually severely hampered by his social status. His marriage was difficult because his wife had mental illness, and they never had children. A nephew who lived with them followe I had never heard of William Smith, a famous geologist, in the late 1700's and early 1800's. At first it was hard to get into the book, but I grew quite interested in the story as time passed. Smith's life was full of ups and downs, and is especially interesting to realize that his career advancement and recognition was actually severely hampered by his social status. His marriage was difficult because his wife had mental illness, and they never had children. A nephew who lived with them followed in his uncle's footsteps and I was glad to know that he had some positive family interaction in his life. An unusual and remarkable story. Simon Winchester writes wonderful nonfiction! I am looking forward to the next title I choose to read by him.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Loraine

    This is a good and important story but there is not much to it, really. I do want to know about this man, who he was and what times he lived in. More important, I want to understand why his story is meaningful. I got all of that, sometimes in much more detail than was really needed. What I had trouble with is the actual geology. There is a great chapter devoted to the fascinating geology of Britain but I really needed to call on Google to get me through it. Once I saw this map properly, the ligh This is a good and important story but there is not much to it, really. I do want to know about this man, who he was and what times he lived in. More important, I want to understand why his story is meaningful. I got all of that, sometimes in much more detail than was really needed. What I had trouble with is the actual geology. There is a great chapter devoted to the fascinating geology of Britain but I really needed to call on Google to get me through it. Once I saw this map properly, the light bulb went on and it all made sense. Testament to the power of a good map, I got a glimpse of why this one was so revolutionary.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jes

    I have put this one aside at about halfway. I think this writer doesn't do the subject justice. I read The Professor and the Madman a few years ago and ended up feeling the same way. The subject is interesting and I was compelled to read it at the realization that this brings up so many interrelated ideas - not to mention the cultural impact. Yet, his writing doesn't have a hook for me. It feels like he's trying to tell a "story" but it's coming out like an extra long wikipedia entry. I have put this one aside at about halfway. I think this writer doesn't do the subject justice. I read The Professor and the Madman a few years ago and ended up feeling the same way. The subject is interesting and I was compelled to read it at the realization that this brings up so many interrelated ideas - not to mention the cultural impact. Yet, his writing doesn't have a hook for me. It feels like he's trying to tell a "story" but it's coming out like an extra long wikipedia entry.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Sammis

    Great book about geology.

  29. 5 out of 5

    fourtriplezed

    A fine read about an obscure individual who had a profound influence on the world of geology. I was loaned this and began reading expecting little but came away impressed.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jeanne

    A fascinating look at how William Smith's discovery changed how the world was and is seen. The birth of modern geology. A fascinating look at how William Smith's discovery changed how the world was and is seen. The birth of modern geology.

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