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The Map that Changed the World: William…

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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Showing 1-5 of 69 (next | show all)
The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology is a wonderful biography of William Smith’s life. Simon Winchester takes the reader on an extraordinary journey through William Smith’s life.

Despite my own interest and background in geology, my first impression on hearing about Simon Winchester’s book was one of, “why bother”. Geologic maps are second nature to me, and I never really gave them a second thought. I find them beautiful to behold and very practical and I’ve even participated in creating geologic maps not only on Earth, but on Mars as well, but I never gave thought to the history of this invaluable geologic tool.

Simon Winchester changed my mind. In recounting William Smith’s struggle to create his first geologic map he brings to life a man who was before his time and who was cruelly ignored and plagiarized by his supposed peers. Winchester’s style is fluid and dynamic, interspersing narrative on William Smith’s life with excerpts from Smith’s diary entries and notes, making the book a delightful read. Not only did I learn about William Smith the man and the scientist, but I also learned a lot about the late 18th and early 19th century when William Smith lived. My only complaint is the jumps Winchester takes the reader on through the life of Smith. While most of the book is fairly linear, following Smith's life from boyhood in Oxfordshire to his adulthood and work in Bath, London, and finally his self-imposed exile to northern England, there are places where Winchester seems to be getting ahead of himself. At several places Winchester jumps ahead then backtracks, seemingly heading off on a tangent then remembering to get back to Smith and his life.

William Smith was not a perfect man, and Winchester does a wonderful job of bringing to light Smith’s difficulties and problems, many of which directly or indirectly hindered his ambitious project to map the geology of England, Wales, and part of Scotland. (At one point Smith was placed in prison for failing to pay off his debts.) Smith often struggled to create his map while working as a freelance surveyor and drainage engineer, traveling across England often at his own expense to collect the fossils and map the strata. But despite these difficulties Smith endured and completed his ambitious project single-handedly.

Smith’s map was a phenomenal accomplishment, measuring over eight feet by six feet in size. Winchester’s account of Smith’s struggle, the highs and lows of his life, to create this masterpiece is a wonderful testament to Smith’s contribution to the science of geology. Along with the story of Smith’s life, Winchester also provides a copy of the map (albeit in a smaller form) as part of the dust cover of the book (in hardback editions). The book is also illustrated with maps, fossils, and various locations that were prominent in Smith’s life. There is a simple glossary and an extensive bibliography to assist the reader unfamiliar with certain terms or who is interested in reading further into Smith’s story.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the science of geology and about the life and times of the man who has been named “The Father of English Geology”. It is a delight to read and I found it informative and entertaining ( )
  GeoffHabiger | Jun 13, 2018 |
Around 1820, Smith mapped the geologic layers of England from coal mines to building canals
  bmcbook | Dec 27, 2017 |
A readable and illustrated accounft of the life of William Smith, who established Geology as a science. Straddling the eighteenth and nineteenth century, this relatively unlettered man worked all his life to set the boundaries of what we now regard as scientific geology. Beginning with the stratigraphy of a local coal mine, he finally mapped all the major features of British geology dating back to the Carboniferous. In spite of the resistance of the more aristocratic dilettantes of the day, his plan for the science had triumphed by the 1820's. Simon winchester has created a very lively and informative biography in the man's historical context. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Nov 10, 2017 |
(Rating: 4.5 /5.0, rounded up) ( )
  rabbit.blackberry | Oct 19, 2017 |
(Rating: 4.5 /5.0, rounded up) ( )
  rabbit.blackberry | Oct 19, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 69 (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.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Winchester, SimonAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Vannithone, SounIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.
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.

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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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060931809, Paperback)

Once upon a time there lived a man who discovered the secrets of the earth. He traveled far and wide, learning about the world below the surface. After years of toil, he created a great map of the underworld and expected to live happily ever after. But did he? Simon Winchester (The Professor and the Madman) tells the fossil-friendly fairy tale life of William Smith in The Map That Changed the World.

Born to humble parents, Smith was also a child of the Industrial Revolution (the year of his birth, 1769, also saw Josiah Wedgwood open his great factory, Etruria, Richard Arkwright create his first water-powered cotton-spinning frame, and James Watt receive the patent for the first condensing steam engine). While working as surveyor in a coal mine, Smith noticed the abrupt changes in the layers of rock as he was lowered into the depths. He came to understand that the different layers--in part as revealed by the fossils they contained--always appeared in the same order, no matter where they were found. He also realized that geology required a three-dimensional approach. Smith spent the next 20 some years traveling throughout Britain, observing the land, gathering data, and chattering away about his theories to those he met along the way, thus acquiring the nickname "Strata Smith." In 1815 he published his masterpiece: an 8.5- by 6-foot, hand-tinted map revealing "A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales."

Despite this triumph, Smith's road remained more rocky than smooth. Snubbed by the gentlemanly Geological Society, Smith complained that "the theory of geology is in the possession of one class of men, the practice in another." Indeed, some members of the society went further than mere ostracism--they stole Smith's work. These cartographic plagiarists produced their own map, remarkably similar to Smith's, in 1819. Meanwhile the chronically cash-strapped Smith had been forced to sell his prized fossil collection and was eventually consigned to debtor's prison.

In the end, the villains are foiled, our hero restored, and science triumphs. Winchester clearly relishes his happy ending, and his honey-tinged prose ("that most attractively lovable losterlike Paleozoic arthropod known as the trilobite") injects a lot of life into what seems, on the surface, a rather dry tale. Like Smith, however, Winchester delves into the strata beneath the surface and reveals a remarkable world. --Sunny Delaney

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:51 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Winchester tells the fascinating story of an Oxfordshire blacksmith's orphaned son who discovered an unmistakable pattern in the rocks. From this, William Smith developed the first true geographical map following fossils and rock patterns, earning him a place in history as the father of modern geology. Line drawings. Maps throughout, 2 in color.… (more)

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