From the Archives: The map that changed the world by Simon Winchester

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, is from February 26, 2008.


I try and spread around the disciplinary love in my science book reading. Some physics, some math, some engineering, some biology, a lot of computing and cyberculture. And even some of the earth sciences too. Simon Winchester's The map that changed the world: William Smith and the birth of modern Geology is essentially about map making. Map making, of course, partakes of several disciplines -- surveying, geography and, of course, geology. Willilam Smith's claim to fame is that he created the first geological map of England, mapping the different strata of rock and fossils in way that had never been done before.

Since relatively little is known about Smith's life, the book sometimes alternates chapters between the scientific and social context of Smith's era (1769-1939) and the history of his map-making efforts. As well, most chapters also contain a lot of general historical information.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for some of the major tragedies and disappointments in Smith's life, a bit of a recap at the beginning. Winchester begins in earnest in chapter 2 with some of the general ideas and issues at play in the era. Chapter 3 gives the generally accepted ideas of fossils around 1800 and Chapter 4 the significance of canal systems to Britain at the time. Chapter 5 talks about Smith's first experiences with seeing strata while working in coal mines while chapter 6 is about his experiences surveying for the railroads. Chapters 7 and goes into the importance of the surveying work he did for canals in forming his ideas about how strata are formed and how to identify them.

In Chapters 9 and 10 Smith gets the idea for his geological map from agricultural maps of Bath and from work he did for drainage projects. Skipping to Chapter 12, the map is created and Winchester details the main problems Smith had in getting his project off the ground, including, in chapter 13, his betrayal by a colleague and the Royal Society. In chapter 14 Smith has to sell his fossil collection to settle some debts and ultimately, in chapter 15 he ends up in debtor's prison. Chapters 16 and 17 detail his life after prison, his long-awaited welcoming into the scientific establishment and his final years.

Overall, I would say the book lacks a little zip. It can drag in places and sometimes the extra contextual information seems a little too close to padding. A couple of things I really appreciated about the book are, first of all, it has a fine glossary at the back. Also, it is really useful to get the hardcover version of the book as the dust jacket folds out into a fairly large reproduction of Smith's map. As well, the list of sources and recommended readings is a valuable tool for collection development in the history of geology.

While this book might be a bit earnest for small public libraries or high school libraries, I think larger public library systems should have at least one copy of this book floating around their stacks in some branch or other. As well, any academic library that collects anything in the history of the earth sciences is going to find this book a necessary acquisition.

Winchester, Simon. The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. 329pp.


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Prior to reading this book, I had never heard of William Smith or his contributions to geology. It wasn't a page turner--I agree with you that it tended to bog down at times. It did, however, provide an interesting glimpse into a piece of science history I knew nothing about.

Thanks for the comment, Kevin. Which more or less encapsulates how I feel about the book, but in a lot fewer words.