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The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern… (2001)

by Simon Winchester

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,577773,041 (3.6)109
In 1793, William Smith, the orphan son of a village blacksmith, made a startling discovery that was to turn the science of geology on its head. While surverying the route for a canal near Bath, he noticed that the fossils found in one layer of the rocks he was excavating were very different from those found in another. And out of that realization came an epiphany: that by following these fossils one could trace layers of rocks as they dipped, rose and fell across the world. This is the story of his life and the history of geology.… (more)
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The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester (2002) ( )
  claudioargento | Feb 8, 2022 |
While I appreciated the interesting account of how modern geology developed in Britain and the contribution of William "Strata" Smith to that development, I didn't enjoy the book nearly as much as I had hoped. Most of this was because I found the writing style of the first half of the book maddening enough that I almost stopped reading it altogether. Fortunately, the style in the second half improved dramatically, almost as if someone else had finished writing it, so it balanced out and the book was okay.

I also think the stories of the man, the map, and the advent of modern geology all could have been told in many ways without the frequent potshots at and the disdainful attitude towards religion. ( )
  Jennifer708 | Mar 21, 2020 |
While I appreciated the interesting account of how modern geology developed in Britain and the contribution of William "Strata" Smith to that development, I didn't enjoy the book nearly as much as I had hoped. Most of this was because I found the writing style of the first half of the book maddening enough that I almost stopped reading it altogether. Fortunately, the style in the second half improved dramatically, almost as if someone else had finished writing it, so it balanced out and the book was okay.

I also think the stories of the man, the map, and the advent of modern geology all could have been told in many ways without the frequent potshots at and the disdainful attitude towards religion. ( )
  Jennifer708 | Mar 21, 2020 |
Skipping over the repetitious foreshadowing of William Smith's decline, [The Map That Changed the World] reads like a lively historical novel.
Further enhancing its appeal are the beautifully rendered drawings of Smith's beloved Jurassic ammonites. Ah, for a fold-out map!

Simon Winchester covers the basics of British late 18th century life, with the strange omission of the horrors of colonization and slavery. ( )
  m.belljackson | Jun 27, 2019 |
This is the story of William Smith and the beginnings of geology as a recognized science. Smith was a man of humble origins and never acquired much beyond a basic education. However, from his childhood he was fascinated by unusual rocks and fossils and spent his life learning more and more about them. After leaving school he learned the art of surveying and came to Somerset in 1791 to survey an estate there. Then he began working for the owner in surveying, planning and drainage for the owner's coal mines. In the mines Smith quickly noticed that the rocks were in well-defined layers that showed a regular pattern between the seams of coal . His insight was that the strata extended all through England and he was able to begin verifying this when he was asked to survey and oversee the planning for a new canal designed to take the local coal to market. Later Smith worked all over England surveying and planning water drainage systems. Everywhere he went he examined the rock formations and collected fossils. He discovered that particular fossils were always from the same strata. All this information allowed him to eventually publish the first geological map of England showing where the various formations were underneath the ground.

William Smith's life was not a particularly easy one as many of the upperclass dabblers in geology looked down on him and one of the founders of the Geological Society even stole his data and published an 'official' map. He also tended to spend more than was wise and became mired in debt. However, his contributions to the science of geology were recognized towards the end of his life.

Winchester doesn't just describe Smith's life but also the England he was born into and the changes that were occurring during his lifetime: the enclosures, the new inventions, changing attitudes, etc. The book was enjoyable and informative, containing as much history as science. Recommended.
  hailelib | Apr 1, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 74 (next | show all)
Smith was ultimately successful because his ideas were immediately useful, and his map was beautiful as well as reasonably accurate for its era. It taught us to begin to look beneath the surface and see the history of our planet. The publisher of ''The Map That Changed the World'' pays tribute to Smith in the ingenious dust jacket of this book, which unfolds to form a striking reproduction of Smith's map.
 
True, the reader must put aside a familiarity with Smith's discoveries, which have long since become textbook information, and travel back in time to the days when the earth was literally terra incognita. But for those willing to suspend previous knowledge and great expectations, Mr. Winchester tries hard to make this story worth the trip.
 
The genre of scientific biography has gone rather stale over the last year or so, but Winchester's book may well prompt a revival.
 
Listening is akin to hearing an articulate scientist reading a paper to a lay audience. It's an authoritative delivery and an enjoyable experience.
 

» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Winchester, Simonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bijtel, Herman J.V. van densecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vannithone, SounIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
In days of old, old William Smith,
While making a canal, Sir,
Found out how the strata dipped to the east
With a very gentle fall, Sir,
First New Red Sand and marl a-top,
With Lias on its border,
Then the Oolite and the Chalk so white
All stratified in order.
Sing, cockle-shells and oyster banks,
Sing, thunder-bolts and screw-stones,
To Father Smith we owe our thanks
For the history of a few stones.

Anniversary dinner, A. C. Ramsay, 1854.
Dedication
For Harold Reading
First words
Incorporated in eighteen of the nineteen chapter headings that follow will be found small line drawings of Jurassic ammonites - long-extinct marine animals that were so named because their coiled and chambered shells resembled nothing so much as the horns of the ancient Egyptian ram-god, Ammon.

About the chapter heading illustrations.
Above one of the many grand marble staircases within the east wing of Burlington House, the great Palladian mansion on the north side of London's Piccadilly, hangs a pair of huge sky blue velvet curtains, twisted and tasseled silk ropes beside them.

Prologue.
The last day of August 1819, a Tuesday, dawned gray, showery, and refreshingly cool in London, promising a welcome end to a weeklong spell of close and muggy weather that seemed to have put all the capital's citizens in a nettlesome, liverish mood.

1. Escape on the northbound stage.
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In 1793, William Smith, the orphan son of a village blacksmith, made a startling discovery that was to turn the science of geology on its head. While surverying the route for a canal near Bath, he noticed that the fossils found in one layer of the rocks he was excavating were very different from those found in another. And out of that realization came an epiphany: that by following these fossils one could trace layers of rocks as they dipped, rose and fell across the world. This is the story of his life and the history of geology.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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