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The Map That Changed the World: The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science Hardcover – 5 Jul 2001

4.1 out of 5 stars 64 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1st edition, 17th printing edition (5 July 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670884073
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670884070
  • Product Dimensions: 14.5 x 3.2 x 22.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 201,382 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Amazon Review

Simon Winchester has a very simple formula, of which The Map That Changed the World is a perfect example--namely that the history we have forgotten is infinitely more interesting than the history with which we are all familiar. After the success of The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which documented the life of WC Minor, the American surgeon and major contributor to the first Oxford English Dictionary, Winchester now turns his attention to William Smith, the 19th-century Briton who can justly lay claim to being the founding father of geology.

The book has all the usual attributes of a pacy historical read: a self-educated, unrecognised scientist spends years roaming the British countryside, compiling a map of the geological layers beneath the surface, only to have his ideas ripped off and to wind up homeless and penniless in Yorkshire with a wife who is going bonkers. And it gets better: in a bizarre Dickensian twist, Smith finally gets his just accolades when he is recognised by a kindly liberal nobleman and is reintroduced to London society as the geologist par excellence. Of itself, the story would be more than enough recommendation but there is a subtext running though the book that is in many ways just as compelling--namely, how some parts of history get written in stone and others in dust. Most secondary-school students get to learn of Charles Darwin and The Voyage of the Beagle. Yet how many people could stick their hands up and say they had heard of Smith? But is evolution any more important a field as geology? Is history ultimately an exercise in who has the best PR? Winchester may not have the answer, but he'll certainly make you think.--John Crace


Simon Winchester has done a considerable service to geology in rescuing Smith from comparative obsurity -- London Review of Books, August 9, 2001

This book is a love song to geology... Winchester has written a stylish and engaging work of narrative history which I think is his best book yet -- Daily Telegraph, June 30, 2001

Who could have dreamed that such an intriguing yarn could have been dug out of geology, or that rocks could become the new rock 'n' roll?...enthralling -- The Financial Times, August 19, 2001

Winchester is a great story-teller, and this is a great story -- Arena Magazine, August 2001

elegant, affectionately told account...Truly a map that changed the world -- Sunday Times, July 17, 2001

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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.
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By A Customer on 14 Aug. 2001
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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