The Map That Changed the World

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9780066209630: The Map That Changed the World

In the summer of 1815 an extraordinary hand-painted map was published in London. Some eight feet tall and six feet wide, brightly coloured - in sea-blue, green, bright yellow, orange, umber - it presented England and Wales in a beguiling and unfamiliar mixture of lines and patches and stippled shapes. It was the product of one man's obsession with rocks, a passion that sustained him whilst the rest of his life slid into ruin. For nearly 20 years, an Oxfordshire blacksmith's son named William Smith journeyed across Britain investigating and naming the layers of rock beneath his feet. Self-taught and determined, Smith had great expertise in practical geology, and this evolving science demanded a new sort of delineation. The beautifully executed map he produced was the first of its kind and transformed the way in which the world was understood. It was a document that laid the groundwork for the making of great fortunes in oil, iron and tin, and, elsewhere, in diamonds, platinum and silver, and was key to the development of one of the great fields of modern science. Smith's was a remarkable achievement, and all the more astonishing for having been completed single-handedly and without financial or professional support. Shatteringly, such heroic and painstaking work exacted a terrible price: imprisoned for debt, Smith was turned out of his home; his work was plagiarized; the scientific establishment turned its back on his trouble; and Smith's wife was diagnozed insane and he himself fell ill. It was not until 1829 that, in a fairy-tale twist of fate, Smith returned to London in triumph, to be hailed as a genius. Simon Winchester, best-selling author of "The Surgeon of Crowthorne" and himself the holder of a degree in geology, enters the dramatic world of "Strata Smith" to tell his moving and inspiring story. Celebrating the unique geology of the British Isles, "The Map That Changed the World" resurrects the forgotten pioneer whose passion for fossils came above all else.

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Following the hugely successful hardback, this extraordinary tale of the father of modern geology looks set to be the non fiction paperback for 2002. Hidden behind velvet curtains above a stairway in a house in London's Piccadilly is an enormous and beautiful hand-coloured map - the first geological map of anywhere in the world. Its maker was a farmer's son named William Smith. Born in 1769 his life was beset by troubles: he was imprisoned for debt, turned out of his home, his work was plagiarised, his wife went insane and the scientific establishment shunned him. It was not until 1829, when a Yorkshire aristocrat recognised his genius, that he was returned to London in triumph: The Map That Changed the World is his story.


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

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