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

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  11,847 ratings  ·  693 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, First Perennial Edition, 329 pages
Published July 30th 2002 by Perennial (first published July 5th 2001)
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 ·  11,847 ratings  ·  693 reviews

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Sep 10, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This is the third Winchester book I’ve read in quick succession and I’m almost tempted to say that they just get better and better – except they probably don’t. I think they are all equally good. This one is about the ‘father of English Geology’. If the advance of knowledge really does depend on the geniuses who can see patterns where for the rest of us see only chaos – then William Smith is precisely that kind of genius: a man who ‘gets it’ and forever changes how we see the world.

I’ll admit it

The official blurb says it the best:
"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. Determined to expose what he realized was the landscape's secret fourt
Jay Schutt
This book turned out to be something that I wasn't much interested in after all. But, it was interesting none the less. It was well-researched and well-written and deserved a better rating, maybe by someone interested in geology.

It was about Englishman William Smith who was a common man with no wealth or title. He dedicated his life to mapping the underground of England during the Age of Enlightenment . His findings became very beneficial to the economy of England, but he gained little fame or f
5 Stars for The Map That Changed The World (audiobook) By Simon Winchester read by the author. This is one of my favorite nonfiction books. This is the story of the science of geology being discovered. This is about William Smith creating the first geographical map of Britain. And this new science was starting to challenge the church’s view that the earth was only a few thousand years old.
Allison Keith
Oct 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a thorough, engaging recounting of a fascinating historical figure whose late-recognised contributions to society paved the way for future revolutionary theories. William Smith, the Father of English Geology, is brought to life on the pages as a fully-fleshed man of depth and determination. Hardworking and with the ability to understand the stratigraphical evidence before him, Smith struggled against the antagonists of ecclesiastical belief and strict class structure. The politics, econo ...more
Jul 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: july-2019
Despite having read and very much enjoying Simon Winchester’s The Alice Behind Wonderland, about Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it has taken me an awfully long time to pick up another book of his. I bought The Map That Changed the World: A Tale of Rocks, Ruin and Redemption from a Salvation Army bookshop a couple of years ago, intending to read it immediately, and for some reason it has languished on my to-read shelf ever since.

The Map That C
Jan 04, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a very interesting story poorly told. The preface and the first chapter (both) tell the whole story in a nutshell, and the rest of the book goes on to fill out the details in an awkward, often overblown manner. The story is however quite compelling, about the dramatic life of William Smith, the first person to understand, survey and then map the stratification of rocks in England, thereby establishing modern geology.

His is a cautionary tale for would be entrepreneurs that are not from t
Lyn Elliott
Jan 28, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography, science
Winchester's biography of William Smith, one of the 'fathers' of English geology, should sing with the joy of intellectual discovery, but doesn't quite get there for me.
From the start, Winchester flags the collapse of Smith's fortunes and the misappropriation of his findings by wealthier, better connected men than he. He builds anticipation of misfortune throughout until the bailiffs actually arrive and Smith is imprisoned for debt. When it actually happens it is almost a relief, as the long way
Kara Babcock
Rocks. They’re old.

Thank you for reading my review.

OK, I guess I’ll go into slightly more detail. In his phenomenal A Short History of Nearly Everything , Bill Bryson devotes slightly less than a page to William Smith and the first geological map of Britain. This is likely a result of Bryson (or his editors) striving in vain to meet that promise of being “short”. Bryson promises us a more “comprehensive” account in The Map That Changed the World. I didn’t actually find this book through A Sho
Will Byrnes
Oct 19, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This is the tale of William Smith, the first guy to create a geologic map. He identified the strata that makes up what comprises the ground for quite a ways down and figured out that it was standard. The story is an interesting one, about a poor bastard beset by the rich types who stole his work and denied him the credit he so deserved, to the point where the guy actually was consigned to debtor’s prison. His social life was even less successful. Late in life he married a much younger woman of f ...more
Victor Sonkin
This is an account of the life of William Smith, who more or less single-handedly, without any special means or education, and much against the spirit of the time (before Lyell, let alone Darwin) created and perfected the first geological map of Great Britain (minus Scotland, more or less); the map the book tells about was published in 1815, but recognition only came to Smith a generation later, when he received the first Wollaston medal (the first of its kind; to this day, this is more or less ...more
Jan 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This is truly a beautifull homage for a man who gained recognition for his work very late in his own life. This is a scientific non-fiction book, but the way it is told it reads like a great adventure novel of the 'quest towards a geological map', which is in my opinion has been a very good choice to tell the story. Also it is obvious that the author is a fan of William Smith and his work which made this a very happy book to read because the author has so much compassions for Smith's trials.

Mar 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
Though the writing style is not quite what his other books have been, I have to give it 4 stars for a thoroughly interesting trek through the world of eccentric 19thC English science. I love this period's history of scientific exploration and the pure enthusiasm and fearlessness and determination of many of the explorations into hitherto unknown realms. Geology was practically brand new except for elite, upper class fossil, mineral and rock collectors who met occasionally at elaborate dinner par ...more
Kristi Thielen
Jun 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I have read Simon Winchester’s superb book once before but reread it because the story of William Smith is so compelling.

The humbly-born Smith is widely regarded as the father of geology, and labored diligently in the early 19th century to learn about the geology of Great Britain and eventually create “The Great Map,” the original of which now hangs in the Burlington House, in London.

Smith’s science was far ahead of its time, when most earth “scientists” were wealthy dilletantes who scorned th
Dov Zeller
When I was a New York manny (before moving to western MA to go to grad school) one of the families I worked for gave me this book. I think I was probably supposed to return it, but wound up having to leave NY in a hurry because of a health and then a housing situation. So I still have this on my non-fiction shelves and every once in a while pick it up and flip through the pages and think about the "discovery" (such a loaded and often unwieldy term) of the consistent and patterned behavior of ear ...more
Feb 03, 2008 rated it it was ok
I have been reading this book for over a year. The story is fascinating. Winchester has the most irritating writing style I have ever encountered. It is hard to force myself to pick up the book. Sad, because William Smith and his geologic map of England mark an important milestone in the history of science. They are also important to understanding the development of the concept of deep time. Creationists are often stymied when they learn that Smith was able to use fossil species to place the roc ...more
Stephie Williams
Oct 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a book about William Smith who figured out that only certain fossils are found in certain strata, and you could use this information to created a vertical map of the earth underneath our feet or below ground. For this he used his surveying skills and multitudes of physical observations in the English countryside. His life was not so smooth. He went from employment to self-employment, which gave him more time and freedom to explore and study what he was finding. At times his jobs would br ...more
Nov 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
William Smith is one of those characters from the English industrial revolution who led such a fascinating life, that it is surprising that he hasn't more biographers. The only other that I have encountered is a much earlier work by John L Morton which are harder to obtain.

Many, especially the Scots, would disagree with the claim that Smith was the father of modern geology. Most, myself included, would bestow that accolade on James Hutton. However, for my money, William Smith's is a better stor
Mark Hartzer
Dec 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the things that age imparts is showing you how little you really know. Despite loving geology, and having a father who taught world geography for 30+ years, I had never heard of William Smith. Not only had I not heard of Smith, but I had never put 2 + 2 together enough to realize that geological ages and rock formations are mostly determined by FOSSILS. Duh! (at least to me anyway). ie., certain mollusks in a particular layer of limestone are never found above that layer, etc... One man, ...more
Fascinating, if a little heavy in places.
Baal Of
Aug 17, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I like maps, and I have as far back as I can remember. As a kid I would linger over maps in the encyclopedia, particularly those maps that described terrain, geology, natural resources, etc. so I was bound to like this book, especially considering the dust jacket is a fold-out, full-color reproduction of the map under discussion. This book, with its somewhat hyperbolic title, is a mix of biography, history, and science, and it is particularly good reminder of just how rough and contentious the b ...more
Jul 31, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: cheshire
MAP is 3/5 because half of it is geology and most people are not fascinated by geology. so, it's a weaker Winchester book although apparently the crowd disagrees and rates it 3rd in overall popularity. in fact, according to GR, it's half as popular as Krakatoa and twice or even four times the Winchester back catalogue.

SW is eminently readable, and although I'm just about finished all the paperbacks stacked up on my bookshelf, Noble Lordships is proving sort of a slog. so I guess I get to summari
Jul 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a brilliantly readable account of the life of William Smith and how his efforts helped in the establishment of one of the most all encompassing sciences, Geology. As a result of his efforts mines were opened, canals built and the industrial heritage of the UK was set. Winchester has researched the subject well and has a passion for both the man and the science that infects the reader from start to finish. While I didn't enjoy this as much as some of his other books, for reasons I can't q ...more
I don't really know what possessed me to listen to this book. Yes, I enjoyed his book The Professor and the Madman and yes, I was desperate for a talking book, but really a book about a man who figured out how to map England below ground?

Well to be honest, it was fascinating. Occasionally I had trouble following the science and sometimes I wondered if the book had maps or pictures that I would be interested in. Neither of these things were a real problem. Whenever I would think it was time to qu
Heidi Burkhart
Aug 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
I had never heard of William Smith, a famous geologist, in the late 1700's and early 1800's. At first it was hard to get into the book, but I grew quite interested in the story as time passed. Smith's life was full of ups and downs, and is especially interesting to realize that his career advancement and recognition was actually severely hampered by his social status. His marriage was difficult because his wife had mental illness, and they never had children. A nephew who lived with them followe ...more
Nov 04, 2013 rated it liked it
This is a good and important story but there is not much to it, really. I do want to know about this man, who he was and what times he lived in. More important, I want to understand why his story is meaningful. I got all of that, sometimes in much more detail than was really needed.
What I had trouble with is the actual geology. There is a great chapter devoted to the fascinating geology of Britain but I really needed to call on Google to get me through it. Once I saw this map properly, the ligh
Mar 13, 2017 rated it it was ok
I have put this one aside at about halfway. I think this writer doesn't do the subject justice. I read The Professor and the Madman a few years ago and ended up feeling the same way.
The subject is interesting and I was compelled to read it at the realization that this brings up so many interrelated ideas - not to mention the cultural impact. Yet, his writing doesn't have a hook for me. It feels like he's trying to tell a "story" but it's coming out like an extra long wikipedia entry.
Sarah Sammis
Dec 18, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2004
Great book about geology.
Nov 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: britain, history
A fine read about an obscure individual who had a profound influence on the world of geology. I was loaned this and began reading expecting little but came away impressed.
May 04, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating look at how William Smith's discovery changed how the world was and is seen. The birth of modern geology. ...more
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Simon Winchester, OBE, is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster who resides in the United States. Through his career at The Guardian, Winchester covered numerous significant events including Bloody Sunday and the Watergate Scandal. As an author, Simon Winchester has written or contributed to over a dozen nonfiction books and authored one novel, and his articles appear in several travel publ ...more

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