on 31 October 2004
Inside the front cover of my edition is a reproduction of 'the map' as produced by William Smith, whereas the back cover has the Royal Geological Survey map produced in 2001. The striking similarity between the two is a testimony to the work of Smith.
Smith did not set out to produce a geological map of the British Isles, but to earn a living in the canal boom years before the advent of the railway era in Britain. The Somerset Coal Canal is another one of his legacies, and he also worked extensively throughput the Somerset coal field, to the South and West of Bath. His true insight may well have been at Mearns Pit, in High Littleton in this coal field. Like many noteworthy discoveries, Smith took many years to work out his ideas, to publish them (and even more to get credit for them).
Geology was at the forefront of science in late 18th century. There were lots of gentleman-scientists, who had rock collections. Slowly, Smith sought to bring order to the series of rocks that were visible in Britain, and he did this by comparing fossils from different locations. His insight was to realise that the order of rocks (in terms of strata) was passed on; if A is above rock B, and B is above rock C, then A must be above rock C. Seen from the 21st Century, that seemed obvious, but at the time it was a real struggle to breakout of the dogmas of the era. At the beginning of Smith's life, Bibles were still printed which declared the date of the earth's creation.
Simon Winchester has written a thoroughly absorbing account of Smith's life and work, and inhabited the pages with snippets of information about the life and times. It is well researched, and uses letters and diary entries of Smith and his contemporaries that survive. Smith cuts a figure of tragedy at times, with disappointment seeming to follow him around. His ideas were all but stolen, he spent some weeks in jail for debt in the summer of 1819, and he missed out on several chances to work abroad, staying for hollow promises of work in London.
I enjoyed the line-drawings of fossils that headed each chapter, and the glossary of geological terms was a useful addition. I also never realised that the house that has an inscribed tablet championing Smith (a little over 4 miles from where I live, myself at the Northern limit of the Somerset coal field) is the wrong house! A very good read, and one of the growing series of history of science books published in the last few years. What Smith's contemporaries failed to do in the early years of the nineteenth century, Simon Winchester has done; hailed a truly remarkable man who travelled the length and breadth of Britain to produce a lasting product; a map. Fortunately Smith was recognised in his lifetime (eventually) and honoured accordingly. Now we can do the same.
on 14 August 2001
If ever you can judge a book by its cover, this is it. The copper embossed dust cover hints at the treasure buried within. From its binding, to the choice of paper to the fine etched illustrations, this is a very classy book.
Winchester takes us aboard one of the most effective literary time machines ever to land on a bookshelf. His writing sweeps us back 200 years to an England that was going through an industrial, scientific and social revolution.
Coal was king. Coal was the fuel for steam power. In turn, steam drove Britannia's economic engines.
William Smith was skilled as a geologist, engineer and cartographer. His observations and maps allowed landowners to discover and exploit the coal resources that lay beneath their land.
Smith's science went well beyond that of defining the strata containing the valuable coal. He devised the concept of stratigraphy, which would allow the relative age and spatial distribution of sedimentary rocks to be quantified.
It was this work, that inspired Smith's fellow geologist Charles Lyell to write "The Principles of Geology". When Charles Darwin went on his voyage of discovery it was the geological insights of Lyell and Smith that allowed Darwin to conceive of the vastness of the geological time scale. It is Winchester's thesis that Smith's map changed the world because of this direct influence on the most revolutionary scientific thinker of the 19th Century.
In the mid-1800s thanks to Darwin, geology was considered to be "The Father of Sciences".
The beauty of Winchester's writing is his evocation of the world in which Smith lived 200 years ago. His description of the English landscapes brings home to us the relationship between the underlying rocks and the aesthetics of the natural scenery we see around us.
Winchester's skills as a travel writer shine through. He surveys not only the landforms but also the social and political landscapes of this era. His clever use of the vocabulary of the era gives us a world inhabited by such people as beadles, tipstaffs and summoners. We travel in a conveyance called a myrmidon. His research is impeccable. We learn that there was an actual prison in London called "The Clink", and that the game of rackets or squash was invented in a debtors jail.
This book deserves its status as on of the great books of 2001. It should encourage readers to go back to Winchester's early work, particularly his travel writing. For readers who wish to learn more about Smith's influence on science should read Lyell's "Principles of Geology" which is still in print as a Classic. This is the book that Charles Darwin took on his voyage of discovery. "The Map That Changed the World" will take you on your very own voyage of discovery.
Simon Winchester tells the largely forgotten story of self-taught geologist William Smith, the father of modern geology. Though the "barely educated lower middle class scholar takes on academic and social establishments and (eventually) wins" formula is not exactly original, the book is pacy enough and the human and scientific interests well balanced enough to keep it an enthralling read.
William Smith was the son of an Oxfordshire blacksmith. His childhood fascination with rocks and fossils led to his employment as a surveyor of mines and builder of canals, and to his discovery that the rocks of his native county lay in strata, always in the same order and always bearing the same unique fossils in each layer. He theorised that this pattern would be replicated throughout Britain, and that the fossils themselves showed that the layers of rocks were layed down at different times. Though to the twenty-first century, this does not sound very revolutionary, to the late eighteenth, before Darwin and when Bishop Ussher's dating of the divine creation of the Earth to 4004 B.C. was still popularly accepted, it was unheard of.
Smith's reputation spread, and soon his professional services were in demand throughout the country, allowing him also to test his geological theories; he astonished his patrons by being able to predict almost on sight whether their lands held coal strata. His plan was to produce a map of the geology of the entire British Isles.
Unfortunately, financial imprudence and lack of social standing, as well as possibly the stigma of an apparently insane wife and the professional jealously of his rivals, damaged Smith's career to such an extent that he was imprisoned for debt. These circumstances are not so well covered by Winchester; I suspect that Smith's diary is by so much the primary source here that he is only able to retell the story Smith himself recorded. The details of the "nymphomaniac" wife, for example, are particularly scanty.
This is unfortunate. For the most part, the book is very lively, easy to read, and Smith's story seems to hold a personal fascination for Winchester. In part, this is explained by a central chapter containing a childhood memoir from the author, on his finding of an ammonite on a Dorset beach; this did, I have to say, sit rather uncomfortably in the middle of Smith's biography; it might just have worked better as a prologue. And the assertion that amateur palaeontology is "no more than the mark of the nerd" is hardly appropriate in such a book! We forgive Winchester his failings though; we are too busy routing for Smith.
William Smith gained an insight into our planet's structure unseen by nearly all his contemporaries. Recognizing that bands of rock repeated their patterns across central England, he found he could forecast the location of likely mineral deposits. Winchester traces the course of Smith's career with easy style and immense feeling. This is no scholarly, pedantic exercise [although Winchester clearly has done his research], the author's too sympathetic with his subject for that. His empathy with Smith permeates nearly every page. The feelings are enhanced by the ammonite illustrations heading each chapter. One almost
regrets the publisher not giving them more space.
Graphics space aside, Winchester's descriptive abilities imparts this tale of a man's troubled life at the beginning of the 19th Century with sincerity. Keeping the great map that resulted from Smith's work before us throughout the book, Winchester brings all the threads together with graceful ease. Smith wandered the British countryside, collecting fossils, data, building a picture of what lay under the surface soil. He linked outcrops, canal cuts through hills, assembled samples and studied patterns. The result, as Winchester urges, "changed the world." The map led to a more vivid image of the Earth's formation and geologic activity, setting the stage for Lyell and Darwin. That rocks displayed patterns was the basis for the concept of change over time - the earth wasn't static. There was a discernible continuity over the millennia. Smith, of course, had no concept of the span of time involved, as Winchester reminds us, but without the schema Smith developed, we might yet still see the Earth as static.
Winchester avoids background description of Smith's era. This keeps this book within a reasonable size, but leaves Smith's working world a bit vague. It was, after all, the era of the Napoleonic wars. Britain was in social and political ferment. Natural science was burgeoning for numerous reasons, not the least of which was a strong rise in commercial and industrial endeavor. Smith's wife is characterized as a nymphomaniac, but the evidence for this is scanty. If her condition was publicly known it would have had strong impact on Smith's professional life. Was Smith's heavy debt load due as much to her as to his inadvisable property investments? Winchester was unable to unearth the fiscal details of Smith's life. It's enough that between fiscal and marital problems, Winchester shows how the morals of the era allowed Smith's work to be plagiarized without recourse. The combination of events finally led him into exile in Northern England. Although belated, Smith's story has a reasonably happy conclusion. Winchester traces the redemption of Smith's reputation and the honours bestowed near the end of his life.
The book is a stimulating read. Winchester isn't an arm-chair writer. He takes us along on his own journey across Britain, tracing Smith's path over the landscape. The book is, in effect, a second redemption of Smith, bringing him into the view of the modern world. Winchester shows us clearly how much work is involved in doing good science, especially with limited resources, erratic backing and an uncomprehending public. This book deserves the widest possible readership.
on 23 July 2001
Simon Winchester has found another neglected historical figure and woven a fascinating story around his life and achievements.I did not enjoy this book quite as much as "The Surgeon of Crowmarsh",but I learned something about geology in a very entertaining way.
William Smith was the son of an Oxfordshire village blacksmith. Such lowly beginnings did not prevent him from creating the first,huge geological map of England, Wales and part of Scotland. There is a reproduction of his map on the end papers of the book, opposite a modern version. Even a non-geologist like myself can see how broadly accurate Smith's observations were. That one man, walking or riding, could have discovered so much is both amazing and humbling. Luckily, he left a diary so we can follow his journeys.
I found the style of the book irritating in places. There are many, many "as we shall see" sentences, especially at the ends of chapters.Some of the modern maps could be improved. That of the Somerset Coal Canal appears to show a canal and a railway (not a branched canal) and Figure 10 shows the GWR line missing Radstock. "He managed to created a design" is presumably a word-processing error. And how does it make "good forensic sense" to have parallel canals? "Forensic" refers to legal processes.
But these are only niggles. I found the book difficult to put down and I have learned a little about geology and social history on the way.And, what a dreadful boarding school Mr. Winchester went to!
Having established himself with the deservedly successful 'Surgeon of Crowthorne' Simon Winchester continues in the same vein, this time in the field of geology. Pursuing what is evidently one of his favourite sujects, Mr Winchester restores to the public eye a long-lost national hero in the form of William Smith; a single-minded, dedicated amateur fossicker who suddenly realises he has the key to unravelling the mysteries of the earth's formation ... but he needs more evidence to complete his grand plan - a map of the underside of Britain.
In gathering this information, he runs foul of several high-born, high-minded charlatans and bigots who are intent on either stealing his hard-won information for themselves, or disproving his theory (which flies in the face of the Biblical Word), or both. Smith's theories are plagiarised or ridiculed, his maps blatantly copied and his reputation sullied, leaving him a broken, disillusioned man, until at what seems like the last minute, he is restored to his rightful place in the scientific community.
Lovingly written and deeply researched, this book gives you the feeling of being with Smith as he marches across the countryside, collecting specimens and obviously loving his subject, but also the feeling of frustration and impotence as he comes up againt the religious firewall of 'It's in the Bible, so it must be true'. In those days of belief in a world only 6,000 years old, Smith must have had real conviction in his theory to stand against the full indignant might of the Church and the established scientific community.
The list of other scientific 'lions' peppering the pages makes one realise what a small community the scientific world was at that time - made even smaller by excluding commoners - so William Smith's achievement of being the first recipient of the Geological Society's highest accolade was a real breakthrough.
A gem of a book, makes one wish to read more ... 5 stars ***** ... so after this, read 'The Dinosaur Hunters' by Deborah Cadbury - more of the same brilliance, bigotry and chicanery in this one, too.
The Map That Changed the World is a biography of the geologist WilliamSmith who single-handidly produced the first ever geological map of theUK.
The book takes us though late 18th century and early 19th century Englandwhen society was just beginning to overcome a literal interpretation ofthe bible, of which Smith's map played a large part.
As with many great individuals, his work was not really appreciated in hislifetime, and his contribution to the world we live in today has sincefaded into relative obscurity. The book, therefore, is to be praised forbringing to our attention Smith's great accomplishments in a non-technicalformat.
I preferred The Surgeon of the Crowthorne by the same author, but this isa good read of a neglected figure in British science.
on 31 August 2001
It's a pity that William Smith is so poorly served by this rambling work that falls between the two stools of popular writing and hard science. Smith deserves better - he wasn't the "father of English geology" but he was a genius and gave us the first example of how the earth's crust can be studied in 4 dimensions (time is the 4th).
For practical purposes Smith can be considered to have "invented" stratigraphy and, as is well known by geologists, this involves the drawing of maps and cross-sections. Smith did just that. What are we to make of a book that contains only a few poorly drafted maps with unsatisfactory legends and no cross-sections? Lay readers will be confused and geologists will be exasperated. The chapter headings are decorated with drawings of ammonites, with no scale indications, and the list of maps gives no page numbers for them. The glossary has been dumbed-down to the point of being misleading.
A pity. It's a wonderful story but this is not the way to tell it.
on 25 June 2009
A book on fossils and the establishment of the science of geology - a fascinating and compulsive read - you must be joking!
But Simon Winchester recounts the original thought and breakthrough that William Smith made in the late 1700's that became not just the science of geology but provided the basis that helped Charles Darwin formulate his ideas. And he does it in such an entertaining way.
Andrew Smith's great breakthrough was his realisation that all rocks laid down as sediments at a particular time and in a particular place are laid down with the same characteristics and the same fossils always appear in the same stratigraphical order. Therefore by noting the fossils found, he could forecast the order of strata beneath them and so produce a geological map.
And he went on to geologically map the whole of the British Isles, producing his masterpiece in 1815. He also realised that the more recent strata contained fossils that appeared to be higher forms of life than the fossils in strata lower down and hence provided the evidence that creation was not exactly 6,000 years ago when all species were simultaneously created as was the prevailing belief. Smith recognised and produced the evidence that life far older than mankind had once existed on the planet.
But what makes the book so readable is the story of William Smith's life set in the social history of the time. He was from a lower class who learned his trade as an apprentice land surveyor at the times of the enclosures, then as a mining surveyor and then a surveyor for the canal boom. His theories were developed from his observations and his practical experience.
But not being a member of the aristocracy created an almost insurmountable barrier to the acceptance of his ideas and his involvement in the burgeoning societies for scientific development. But there were well connected doctors / MP's / vicars - Joseph Townsend and Benjamin Richardson - who recognised Smith's brilliance and assisted him to formulate and write down his ideas. And particularly Sir Joseph Banks a prominent member of the aristocracy who sponsored him.
But he remained unrecognised and in deep financial trouble for much of his life - 30 nights in a debtors prison - all his possessions taken - his outstanding fossil collection sold to pay his bills. But fortunately in his old age, the new more enlightened society did recognise him as one of the most significant men of the 19th century and gave him the honours and respect he deserved.
Simon Winchester admits in this book that it is not a scholarly work and he is gracious enough to point toward other works that are. What we do get is a well written account of William Smith the Father of Geology that a layman like myself can understand. I am a complete numpty when it comes to Geology, social history and engineering. It was a pleasant surprise to me when I came away from this book having been enlightened. I think perhaps it was the likes of me that Mr Winchester aimed his book at. Well the arrow struck home.
Now I know something about how the differnt rock layers were created over immense time periods. I know more about the different types of fossil. I know a little more about canal and mine building. I am aware of how cruel the class system could be in Smiths time during the late 1700s and the early 1800s. I have in short become a bore to my wife.
I live not far from Bath and on my last visit looked closely at the Oolite stone that Smith was so fond of. This is a fascinating bit of local history for me and here I was totally unaware we had a hero from the past that is worthy of national praise. Winchester has certainly convinced me that the map Smith created all by his own efforts is a miracle indeed.
If you want an easy read of subjects that might elude you in more studious works, then this is the book for you. A big thank you to Simon Winchester for both entertaining and educating this poor air head. To such an extent I bought my first serious fossil in Morocco whilst on a recent holiday. And it is fantastic.