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.