The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology
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The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology

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by Simon Winchester

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In 1793, a canal digger named William Smith made a startling discovery. He found that by tracing the placement of fossils, which he uncovered in his excavations, one could follow layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell—clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world—making it possible, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the


In 1793, a canal digger named William Smith made a startling discovery. He found that by tracing the placement of fossils, which he uncovered in his excavations, one could follow layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell—clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world—making it possible, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the hidden underside of the earth. Smith spent twenty-two years piecing together the fragments of this unseen universe to create an epochal and remarkably beautiful hand-painted map. But instead of receiving accolades and honors, he ended up in debtors' prison, the victim of plagiarism, and virtually homeless for ten years more.

The Map That Changed the World is a very human tale of endurance and achievement, of one man's dedication in the face of ruin. With a keen eye and thoughtful detail, Simon Winchester unfolds the poignant sacrifice behind this world-changing discovery.

Editorial Reviews

Boston Sunday Herald
"A compelling human story"
New York Times Book Review
"Winchester brings Smith's struggle to life in clear and beautiful language."
“Winchester masterfully weaves a compelling history.”
"Well-researched narrative"
Denver Post
“Smith’s unsung life provides the perfect backdrop for yet another entertaining intellectual history.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
Simon Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, presents the fascinating story of William Smith, a 19th-century engineer who became the father of modern geology by discovering the various fossil layers under the earth and creating the world's first map of the various strata. Before he could receive any such acclaim, however, he was forced to overcome a landslide of adversity.

Once again, Winchester brings to life an obscure historical figure almost completely forgotten over the years. Smith worked as an engineer at a time when canal growth was booming in England -- experienced men were needed to determine the most practical route each canal should take. As he surveyed, he noticed that the rocks were arranged in layers, each layer containing a unique set of fossils. He quickly realized what this meant: The Earth must be far older than the 4,004 years commonly thought to be true, as taught by the Bible.

For the next 20 years, Smith traveled throughout England, accumulating rocks and fossils -- creating one of the largest collections ever -- while planning the creation of a huge hand-painted map that would show the arrangement of the various layers. In 1815, his map was produced, at great personal expense.

Four years later, he was thrown into debtor's prison, and swindled out of his meager profits. He was deemed too "unpolished and ill-educated" to gain entry into the Geological Society, a snub that devastated him. Worst of all, his carefully and painstakingly created map was then plagiarized by a "gentleman," George Bellas Greenough -- a sitting member of both the House of Commons and the Geological Society, immensely wealthy and powerful.

Smith's struggles to revive his good name and, ultimately, receive the acclaim of his geological peers make for compelling reading -- and another triumph for Simon Winchester. (Nicholas Sinisi)

Nicholas Sinisi is the Barnes and History Editor.

God created the world and all its creatures during one week in late October 4004 B.C. That, at least, is what the Christian world once accepted with little question. But early in the nineteenth century, a humble surveyor and fossil collector named William Smith pieced together evidence of the considerably greater age of the planet and of the succession of different creatures that had inhabited it. He discovered that the fossil-rich rock under his native England's green hills was stacked in distinct layers, which apparently corresponded to successive eras of geologic time. Based on this, he created a hand-painted stratigraphic map of the British Isles—published in 1815, it was the first of its kind, and it marked the birth of modern geology. Smith's story, told with great sympathy, is—like that of many scientific pioneers—bittersweet. Coming from the working class, Smith earned little reward for his labors—aristocratic rivals stole his ideas; he even did a stint in debtors' prison—and it was only late in life that he got the recognition he deserved. Winchester's affection for Smith, and for the rocks and fossils he loved, is altogether infectious in this fascinating, exceptional book.
—Eric Wargo

Publishers Weekly
As he did in The Professor and the Madman, Winchester chooses an obscure historical character who is inherently fascinating, but whose life and work have also had a strong impact on civilization. Here is William Smith, the orphan son of a village blacksmith, with lots of pluck and little luck until the end of his life when this pioneering first geological cartographer of the world beneath our feet was finally and fully recognized. Smith's life illustrates the interconnectedness of early 19th-century science, the industrial revolution, an intellectual climate that permits a look beyond religious dogma, and the class biases that endlessly impede his finances and fortunes. Published in 1815, Smith's huge and beautiful map of geological strata and the fossils imbedded in them blazed the way for Darwin and the creation-vs.-evolution debates that rage even day. Winchester is a fine stylist who also has a fine, clear reading voice. He fully engages listeners, not only with the excitement of Smith's life and work, but even with geological explications that would have been pretty dull in science class. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
One does not expect a biography of the father of modern geology to be simultaneously engaging, repetitive, stimulating, and snobbish, yet this book is all that. Two-hundred years ago, Smith observed that layers of rock were always organized in a specific order and from this observation developed the modern study of systematic geology. However, the focus of this audio is on a life. Son of a blacksmith (as Winchester repeats ad nauseam), Smith apprenticed to a surveyor and was a well-known geology and water-drainage expert before age 30. His desire for intellectual immortality drove him to create a complete geological map of England, which took him 14 years. His reward was bankruptcy, family disasters, and professional oblivion. Such facts seem relatively straightforward; however, the underlying subtext of the book, the frequently reiterated belief that the English class system is to blame for Smith's problems, is both irritating and problematic. By Winchester's own account, the young Smith was a skilled, scientifically well read, socially accepted professional who gradually evolved into a map-obsessed eccentric. The work is also marred by verbally repetitive foreshadowings and verbose tributes to Smith as a member of the scientific pantheon that includes Darwin, Malthus, etc. With all its flaws, this is charming and should be as popular as the author's previous best seller, The Professor and the Madman. He does a more than competent (in fact, highly professional) job of reading his own words. Recommended for all but the smallest public, academic, and secondary school library. I. Pour-El, Des Moines Area Community Coll., Boone, IA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
In The Professor and the Madman, Winchester managed to turn the seemingly dull story of the genesis of a dictionary into an international bestseller. His new book is about the equally unglamorous subject of geology, but he explores far more than the scientific classification of rocks. Once again readers are treated to the captivating life story of an obscure, eccentric man who made, against all odds, a big difference. William Smith led the life of a Charles Dickens character, complete with debtor's prison, sinister aristocratic snobs, intellectual "pilferers," a mentally ill wife, and an understudy nephew (even more destitute than himself) who eventually became professor of geology at Oxford. Smith was a self-educated canal digger with a keen eye, limitless perseverance, and an insatiable curiosity about all things under the topsoil. He had ideas about stratification that no one had before, and he turned those ideas into a masterwork: the world's first true geologic map. His work had huge implications in numerous aspects of early 19th-century life, including religion, commerce, agriculture, politics, and science. Winchester's book has a few flaws: repetition, overstatement of his primary themes, several proofreading lapses (especially near the end). But for the most part, it is an engaging, lively story that will capture the interest of many teens, and not only those who maintain rock or fossil collections.-Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A masterful, felicitous tribute to Smith (1769—1839), the extraordinary ordinary Englishman who conceived, researched, and drew the world's first geological map. Winchester (The Professor and the Madman), who studied geology at Oxford, begins at one of the lowest points of Smith's life: August 21, 1819, the day he emerged from King's Bench Debtors' Prison, his life in disarray. It would be a dozen years before he returned to London to receive the honors he had earned for his most lonely and arduous task—constructing a geological map of England and Wales. As Winchester shows, Smith (an autodidact son of a blacksmith) was the most improbable of candidates to become a scientific giant. But he was equipped with a ferocious determination, an insatiable curiosity, an eagerness to muddy his boots and roughen his hands, and—of great importance—a rugged physical constitution that never failed him. He was born into an England whose churches taught (and whose parishioners believed) the Biblical account of a divine, six-day creation. He was also born into a strict class system that inhibited the acceptance of his work (for years he was denied membership in the Geological Society by the perfumed snobs who ran it—and who plagiarized his research). But he lived in a time that hungered for the skills he had mastered: drainage of farmland, construction of canals, and location of minerals. (He even discovered that the famous thermal springs of Bath had cooled because they were blocked by the bone of an ox.) One of his great insights was that fossils were the key to understanding geology: certain fossils exist only in certain strata. He amassed an enormousfossil collection that penury forced him to sell to the British Museum for a mere £500. He spent years traveling the English countryside, mapping the strata he had learned to identify in the coalmines and canals that had dirtied his clothes and enriched his imagination. A fluid, fascinating, emotional story of an unlikely genius who created a science. (60 illustrations)

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Escape on the Northbound Stage

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.

Anyone trying to hurry along the cobbled and granite-paved streets that day was still certain to be frustrated, despite the improvement in the weather: The crowds! The crush! The dirt! The smell! More than a million people had lately been counted as living within and beyond London's city walls, and each day hundreds more, the morning papers reported, were to be found streaming in from the countryside, bent on joining the new prosperity that all hoped might soon be flowering now that the European wars were over. The city's population was well on the way to doubling itself in less than twenty years. The streets were in consequence filled with a jostling, pullulating, dawdling mass of people. And animals, too: It seemed of little matter to some farmers that there had long been laws to keep them from driving cattle through the center of town - so among the throngs one could spot mangy-looking sheep, more than a few head of cattle, the odd black pig, and of course horses, countless horses, pulling carriages and goods vehicles alike. The stench of their leavings, on a hot week such as this had been, was barely tolerable.

Since it was very early in the morning, there were, of course, fewer crowds than usual. Fewer, that is, except in one or two more notorious spots, where a sad and shabby ritual of the dawn tended to bring out the throngs - and where this story is most appropriately introduced.

The better known of the London sites where the morning masses gathered was in the rabbit warren of lanes that lay near Saint Paul's Cathedral, to the east of where the river Fleet had once run. Halfway along the Fleet Market a passerby would have noted, perhaps with the wry amusement of the metropolitan sophisticate, that crowds had gathered outside a rather noble, high-walled building whose address, according to a written inscription above the tall gateway, was simple: Number Nine.

An onlooker would have been amused because the address was a mere euphemism, the building's real purpose only too well known. The streets to the west of Saint Paul's were one of the two districts of nineteenth-century London where a clutch of the capital's many prisons were concentrated: the Newgate, the Bridewell, the Cold Bath Fields, and the Ludgate jails had all been built nearby, in what in winter were the chill gloom and coal-smoke fogs of the river valley. And Number Nine was the site of the best known of them all, the prince of prisons, the Fleet.

There was another, precisely similar, ghetto of prisons on the south side of the Thames, in the area that, then technically beyond London, was the borough of Southwark: another small huddle of grim, high-walled mansion houses of punishment and restraint - the Clink, the Marshalsea, the Bedlam prison-hospital, and, formidable in appearance and reputation, just like its sister establishment back at Number Nine, the infamous barrackslike monstrosity of the Prison of the King's Bench.

The King's Bench, the nearby Marshalsea, and the Fleet were different from most London prisons. They were very old, for a start, and were privately run according to a set of very strange rituals. They had been instituted for a sole purpose - the holding, for as long as necessary, of men and women who could not or would not pay their bills. These three institutions were debtors' prisons - and the reason that crowds formed around their entrances each sunrise is that, every morning just after dawn, it was the policy of their wardens to free those inmates who had discharged their obligations.

Of the three the Fleet had the most intriguing entranceway. On either side of the gate was a caged window, and above it the motto "Remember the Poor Debtors, Having No Allowance." Through the grate could be seen a small and gloomy chamber, with nothing inside except a wooden bench. A doorway beyond, locked and barred from the outside, gave access to the main cellblock. Each day a new impoverished prisoner would be pushed out into the cage - to spend the next twenty-four hours on begging duty, pleading with passersby for money to help in his or her plight. Debtors were obliged to pay for their time in prison; those who turned out to be totally out of funds were forced to go into the grated room and beg.

The crowds outside the Fleet and the King's Bench prisons on that cool August Tuesday morning, and that so interrupted the progress of men of affairs on their ways along the granite setts with which the road in Southwark and Saint Paul's had recently been paved, were there to see a spectacle. Tourists came to the jails to see the beggars; the merely curious - as well as the small press of family and friends (and perhaps some still-unsatisfied creditors) - came to greet with amiable good cheer the small group of inmates who each day would emerge, blinking, into the morning sunlight.

According to the prison records, one of the half dozen prisoners who stepped free from behind the high walls of the King's Bench Prison on that Tuesday morning was a sturdy-looking yeoman whose papers showed him to have come from Oxfordshire, sixty miles west of London. Those few portraits painted of him in his later years, together with a single silhouette fashioned when he was in his dotage, and a bust sculpted in marble more than twenty years later, show him to be somewhat thickset, balding, with a weatherbeaten face...

Meet the Author

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, The Men Who United the States, The Map That Changed the World, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa, all of which were New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. In 2006, Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He resides in western Massachusetts.

Brief Biography

New York; Massachusetts; Scotland
Date of Birth:
September 28, 1944
Place of Birth:
London, England
M.A., St. Catherine¿s College, Oxford, 1966

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Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I struggled thru the first 100 pages detecting and hoping for a good story. And I caught glimpses. But in the end, I only found a cure for insomnia. Too bad.... I think theres a great story here.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not only is this a well written and absorbing biography of William Smith, the father of modern geology, it is also a good exposition of the times and the emergence of modern science. The concept of geology did not exist prior to William Smith's work and it was interesting to read about the origins of the science resulting from an ordinary surveyor's observations and conclusions. The next time I go to England I will find a geological guide book. It will be a whole new way to look at the english countryside.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Winchester achieves two vastly different, though at the same time equally important objectives in the writing of this volume. The first of these is the documenting in great detail, the trials experienced by William Smith (which are by no means isolated instances in the history of science) during the long and difficult years necessary for the completion of this earliest geological map. As an example, Charles Darwin is widely believed to have been the one and only individual who first conceived the theory of evolution. Yet at present, few scholars and even fewer textbooks make any acknowledgement whatever of Alfred Wallace, Darwin¿s lesser known, though no less deserving co-discoverer of the same ideas. Perhaps, had Winchester not committed himself to the arduous task of putting pen to paper, William Smith would have been destined to suffer from much the same lack of recognition. This book, however, insures that such will not prove to be the end result. The author provides his readers with a substantial amount of information, probably encompassing about half of what is ultimately written, concerning the long and diverse history of our planet¿the second objective attained in these pages. This book is a must-read for anyone seriously interested in the history of geological science.
Guest More than 1 year ago
During my stay in an American hospital I was given this wonderful book to read by my sister. That was 4 years ago and I have never forgotten the inspiring but tragic circumstance of this story. So today I've purchased it as a Christmas present for my girlfriends 16 year old son. I hope he finds it as interesting and compelling as I did.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The first half of the book is difficult, it is very repetitious, not particularly interesting, and not to the point the introduction makes you think. Once through that section though, the story of Smith unfolds, the writting improves and the story becomes interesting.. As someone else said, it is a short story expanded badly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I don't normally read books quickly, some remain for weeks before I pick them up again and carry on. This one I couldn't wait to pick up again and again when I had a spare moment. It is a poignant story of one person's obsession and determination that finally ends in triumph against all the odds. A very readable book that taught me a lot and has woken in me a desire to explore further this fascinating story and subject area. Anyone who has ever picked up a strange rock or fossil while out on a walk and wondered about its origins must read this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm afraid I found this a great story ruined by the horribly psuedo-academic style of the writing. There was extensive and unnecessary use of obscure words not found in my copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Mr. Winchester also droned on in sentences often exceeding fifty words. If you can possibly forgive the writing and get beyond it, you will find a good story buried within.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is extremely well written, Smith's life is fascinating, and the illustrations (especially the ammonites) are superb. My one criticism is that there is a fair bit of padding by the author to make this a reasonable length manuscript. There apparently is simply not a lot of hard evidence for large periods of Smith's life or for important things such as his relationship with his wife (or the author couldn't find this). To get around this, the author includes much detail on his modern day tracing of Smith's trail, his search for Smith's actual residences (which seems to be of only little importance) and several quite irrelevant stories of the authors own fossil hunting expeditions, unsuccessful university history etc etc. He also adds a quite unnecessary glossary of terms, index, and a very long acknowledgements section. These could all have been left out, but of course the book would then be very short indeed, hardly longer than a long magazine article. On the other hand, the method of packaging a small version of Smith's map as the book cover paper is quite ingenious and well done.
ChuckL More than 1 year ago
I thought this was a great book. William Smith's insight was truly original. He was able to correctly date the layers of earth by the fossils it contained. This led to the modern science of geography, and indicated the most likely places to find coal, minerals and later gas and oil. It also led many to question the Church sanctioned belief that the Earth was only 6,000 years old. The beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment. I thought I knew a lot about history and geography, especially maps, but I had never heard of William Smith. I learned a lot. It makes me want to go to England to see his original map, the first modern map that showed what was beneath the soil.
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Laozman More than 1 year ago
This has an HG Wells feel to its documentary narrative, and gives an enormous insight not only to geography, but how this shaped thinking at the time. Definitely not for creationists who think the world spun into existence 6000 years ago.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought that this book did a good job telling the biography of a man who made a profound impact on the geological world, but by no means did he INVENT geology. And yes, Edmond Halley was a very important man in terms of scientific discovery, but he was an astronomer, not a geologist. Charles Lyell is referred to as the 'father of modern geology,' not Halley.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book enjoyable and easy to read. Tells the history of Geology and the struggle of the man who invented it in an England where only the 'elite' get credit for their ideas. Written simply but fun to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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 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 develo
Guest More than 1 year ago
Book jacket blurbs 'about how original, astounding, and earth-shattering Smith's work was' keep intruding into the early pages of this book. The book tells how Smith collected and organized a prodigious amount of information that showed how field geology ought to be done - and uncovered what lay beneath the soil of England. But he was not a great theoretician and not very interested in the implications for how the earth was formed or how old it was. The books Smith bought in London, described in this book, demonstrate that Smith did not break new ground so much as he assembled information that confirmed or refuted earlier thinking. Smith's struggles to have his contributions recognized make a good story but the author fails to make a convincing case that Smith is as important to the progress of science as the author says he is.