Monday, March 5, 2007

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

TITLE: The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology
AUTHOR: Simon Winchester
PUBLISHER: HarperCollins

We have come a long way in our GIS world since Smith’s map of England’s geological formations was published in 1815. The map was over 8 feet tall and six feet wide and it took William Smith 2 years to print and color the 400 original maps. Smith would have been excited with the 3-D plotters demonstrated at the NCGIS conference last week.

Smith “noticed that the rocks he was excavating were arranged in layers; more important, he could see quite clearly that the fossils found in one layer were very different from those found in another. And out of that realization came an epiphany: that by following the fossils, one could trace layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell -- clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world.”

Smith's effort was not an easy professional or personal path. His geological observations butted against the cornerstones of Christianity. The Geological Society of London snubbed Smith because of his socio-economic status. Others tried to plagiarize his work. As Smith’s financial status unraveled Smith found himself in debtor’s prison. Upon leaving prison he was homeless in northern England for about 10 years. In 1931 Smith’s condition improved, finding greater acceptance and support for his work which included a generous lifetime pension offered by King William IV.

"Krakatoa, The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883" is another of Winchester’s books. I read it a year before the tsunami devastated the shores of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and other surrounding shorelines. Winchester’s scientific reconstruction of the evidence surrounding the Krakatoa event was fascinating.

My next Winchester read will be "The Crack in the Edge of the World." Winchester is a master of the scientific non-fiction genre. Anyone who can write an interesting book about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary ("The Professor and the Madman") and still obtain another contract from the same publisher must be a great writer!

Winchester’s Web Site
Audio Interviews with Winchester
NPR Audio lists

Google Earth Links:
None created.


Pete Kennedy said...

Great review! I can't wait to read some of his books. We should start a book trade!

Anna said...

An eight foot map! Of what, for what?! It's a geological survey of the Island of Britain the self-taught geologist William Smith on display at The Walters Art Museum in Maps: Finding Our Place in the World. It’s quite literally the map that changed the world. Smith mapped the various strata and fossil records he found across Britain. He reasoned that through looked at the different layers, Britain was formed over a long period of time. Years later, it was this map that gave Darwin the time he need to develop his theory of evolution.

Go to for more info and to see videos of the curator talking about the exhibition.