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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.
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on 14 August 2001
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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.
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HALL OF FAMEon 4 December 2002
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.
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VINE VOICEon 28 July 2001
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.
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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.
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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!
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This book deserves more than five stars!
I enjoy intellectual, scientific, and social history, and was delighted to see all three forms combined in one outstanding book. The result provides many interesting and helpful perspectives on the development of three-dimensional geological maps and their later use in the sciences of geology and biology, and in looking for mineral reserves. The book's main drawback is that it is done as a trade book, rather than as a scholarly work. Overlook the obvious gaps in documentation though, and the story will justifiably reward you.
The details of this book are lovingly developed. Let's begin with the illustrations. The jacket dust cover can be unfolded to display a large, colored replica of William Smith's first geological map of Great Britain. Each stratum is colored in so it is darkest near the bottom and lightest near the top. You also get two smaller versions on color plates within the book. In identifying similar strata, he relied on differences in ammonite fossils, and 18 line drawings open 18 chapters so you can see how these compare to one another. You also get line drawings of oolitic limestone in which fossils are often found, and the types of fossils used as weighing stones and marbles on the farm where Mr. Smith grew up.
To make the connection to Mr. Smith's thought process, the author has visited many of the sites where Mr. Smith made his initial observations that led him to develop the concept of the modern geological map. One particularly interesting one is a chapter about the author's own youth and finding a perfect fossil sample.
Mr. Smith was not part of the gentry, which regularly provided the scientific advances of those days. Mostly self-taught, he was first a surveyer and later learned enough engineering to work on canals and projects like draining swamps. The gentry alternately encouraged and spurned him, which made the task more difficult.
Mr. Smith's thought process basically involved noting that the order of strata in collieries were often the same. Mr. Smith began to theorize that the strata were connected over vast sections of land. Later work with canals proved him right, where he could expose considerable lengths of land to see the connections. Close observation led him to realize the potential use of fossils for strata identification at a time when The Origin of Species had not been written and Darwin was still a Creationist.
From there, he worked mostly alone over decades to fill in the geological map with his own observations. It was an enormous task that no one would today consider doing alone! The problems of getting the first maps published are well described, as well.
The book also puts the challenge that this work made to Creationism into a helpful perspective. The illustrations include a Bible page showing the date of the Creation as 4004 B.C.
The subtle social interactions are also interesting, as Mr. Smith was considered someone to meet with for some purposes and not for others. He was snubbed during the founding of the Geological Society and the same people later plagiarized his work! Mr. Smith overspent his financial resources in pursuing the project, and fell into a ruinous debt and a disastrous marriage. The combination led him into debtor's prison just before the first map was published. He came out of prison to find his home boarded up and his possessions gone. He proceeded to live in obscurity for the next 12 years until scholarly praises for his work once again drew attention to him. In his last few years, he received honors (such as the first Wollaston Medal and a pension from the king).
I also enjoyed reading about the books that Mr. Smith read to learn about how to create maps and overlay survey results. The process in use in those days often meant that he had to carry 40 maps with him while he traveled around the countryside to check outcroppings.
Anyone who has studied geology will want to read this book. People who are fascinated by what one dedicated person can do will find the story inspirational. Those who enjoy understanding how important ideas developed will enjoy how observation led to new conclusions by Mr. Smith. Those who are interested in how evolution became accepted will enjoy how the explantion for fossils changed from God's way of showing his omnipotence to their being seen as the crystalized remnants of ancient sea creatures.
After you finish enjoying this magnificent volume, I encourage you to look around and consider where the current explanations don't match what actually seems to be going on. For example, many people have forecast problems of various sorts that have never occurred, while many actual problems have arrived unannounced. Why are these misperceptions occuring?
Help make the view of our world clearer for all!...
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VINE VOICEon 10 January 2007
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.
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on 23 March 2016
If you're tolerant of the man's style of writing then go ahead and buy this book. Read some of the other reviews which will warn you of Winchester's style. I find the style almost unreadable in its repetition Good looking book delivered promptly in the condition described. I wouldn't pay full price for this book ever.
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on 20 January 2006
I really tried to enjoy this book, yet despite one failed and one successful attempt at finishing it, I was left ultimately disappointed.
The subject is potentially enthralling, but the writing style and pretension of the author result in a book that is repetitive and difficult to read.
I have two main objections to this book, first, the excessive use of footnotes on almost every page. Reading these notes results in a book that fails to flow, and is consequently difficult to read. Not reading these notes would involve ignoring almost a third of the provided text.
Second, the author’s over heightened self importance, leading to an entire chapter (in which the author discusses his finding of a fossil during childhood) that adds nothing to the book, and would be better removed entirely.
Essentially the author appears undecided as to whether this book is his personal autobiography, or the biography of William Smith.
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