The Map That Changed the World

by Simon Winchester
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407

When people discuss geology, the idea of strata is one of the first terms that is introduced. Strata, or the layers of material one can see when looking at cross-sections of the Earth, explain a great deal about the ways in which the land developed—and even when it was not land at all—in any given area. This is in some ways the book of the planet, the record of what has transpired, and when. The story of the first man in England to begin to talk about and map his country's strata is the story of The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology.

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It has not always been the case that ordinary people knew what strata were or why they are important. In fact, it has not always been the case that there were bonafide geologists studying such things. In England, a single man began to penetrate this realm of understanding on his own, by struggling with the meaning of the layers he spied in a mineshaft in Somerset. His name was William Smith, and he was born in 1769. Curiosity about the rocks around him and the Earth below him drove him to ask questions such as what these layers he saw on the mine walls meant. As he looked at the layers on the walls, he began to unravel a mystery that had troubled him for years, back above ground.

When he watched his uncle, a dairyman, weigh out his goods, he noticed that the object he used, called a pound-stone, did not look like a stone at all. Eventually, he identified it as a petrified sea urchin. But what was an artifact from the sea doing so far inland, he wondered? He got an answer to that question—and to many more—in that Somerset mine. At one time, this inland town was not inland at all but was part of the great oceans. That story and much more was revealed to Smith as he learned the book of the Earth written in the strata.

Smith eventually captured his observations on brilliant maps—brilliant both in the sense that they were very cleverly conceived and in terms of the electric colors used to illustrate them. Those maps became a cornerstone for modern geology and brought William Smith fame. The Map That Changed the World chronicles this explorer's great professional victories, as well as his personal tragedies.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1670

Whether William Smith was the founder of modern geology, as Simon Winchester claims, or is more deserving of the more narrow, but still impressive, title of the founder of stratigraphical geology given him by an earlier biographer, is for the experts in the history of geology to debate. What is unquestionable is that he was one of the pivotal figures in the history of geology. Smith’s life illuminates not only the history of geology but also the social history of British science. Both the nature of geology and the social status of scientists were changing in Britain at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Smith was a major catalyst in the transformation of geology from a science practiced in the library to one conducted in the field. His life and career illustrate the tensions within the discipline and the alterations in the social status of those who practiced it. Yet he has been relatively ignored by historians of science.

This is surprising because he is a natural subject for a biography. Unlike many English scientists, his life was spent about as far from the cloisters of the British universities as possible. Moreover, as Winchester presents him, he can serve as an example of the common man in a desperate struggle with the immoral establishment which steals the fruits of his labors. He was the victim of an unfair social order, but also his own flaws. Ultimately, in his case good did triumph over evil, and Smith belatedly received the recognition he deserved, but only after years of poverty and insult.

The son of a village blacksmith who died when Smith was only eight, Strata Smith, as he came to be known, had only a basic education. He escaped village life to become the assistant to a surveyor at age eighteen. Through his descents into coal mines, his surveys for canals, and his travels throughout England and Wales by foot and coach, he gained unequaled practical knowledge of the geology of the country. He made two fundamental discoveries. First, he recognized that the rocks of England were arranged in layers (strata) and that these layers were generally arranged in the same order or succession throughout the country. Although others had noticed the regular succession of at least some strata, going back to the mid-seventeenth century, Smith’s discovery was made independently of these earlier observations. Second, in connection with this first discovery, he noticed that there were particular fossils associated with particular strata, and that these fossils could be used to distinguish otherwise similar looking layers. These two discoveries—the succession of strata and the association of fossils with strata—have become the two laws of stratigraphy and have transformed geology.

With the assistance of John Cary, England’s foremost mapmaker, Smith presented his knowledge of the geological strata in the form of a large-scale map (five miles to the inch), published in 1815. It was the first large-scale geological map ever published. Based entirely on Smith’s own observations, the hand-colored map shows twenty-one different layers of rock. For a pioneering effort, it was amazingly accurate and is still held in high esteem by geologists nearly two centuries later. (A small version of the map forms the book’s ingeniously folded dust jacket.) According to Winchester, Smith’s motives for publishing the map were both intellectual and mercenary. On one hand, he understood his obligation to present his discoveries to the world. On the other, he craved recognition and possible financial rewards.

To this point, Smith’s life had not been particularly happy. His wife, Mary Ann, whom he apparently married about 1808, provided neither social standing nor a stable household. He also suffered from money worries. Although he earned an excellent income, Smith seemed to prefer houses which were above his station and earnings. He also made a horrible decision to purchase a quarry which turned out to have very inferior stone. The quarry was a commercial failure. His mortgages and other debts piled up. Perhaps the map would garner him the immortality he wanted and the income he needed.

What followed instead was, as Winchester describes it, a tragedy. Winchester’s indignation at Smith’s fate is evident. Geology in England at that time was a gentlemen’s occupation. The Geological Society of London, founded in 1807, was foremost a private club for what Winchester characterized as “cultured dilettantes.” Led by George Bellas Greenough, a member of Parliament and a gentleman of independent means, the members had little appreciation for Smith, with his working-class origins, his lack of a profession, and his inclination to dirty his hands (literally) with field research. To make the situation even worse, one of Smith’s patrons was Joseph Banks, the president of the Royal Society of London, who had opposed the establishment of an independent society dedicated to geology. Finally, Smith and the leadership of the Geological Society differed on the theoretical basis of geology. The London geologists were advocates of Abraham Werner’s theory that all rocks were precipitates from the sea. Smith was not a follower of Werner. All these factors were sufficient to ensure that Smith was not elected to membership in the Geological Society.

The Geological Society did far worse than merely snub Smith, however. It allegedly stole what was most precious in his life from him. In 1820, the society published a large-scale geological map of England and Wales, authored by Greenough, which, according to Winchester, was based on data “borrowed, purloined, copied, pilfered, plagiarized, and just plain stolen, or taken with no by-your-leave from William Smith.” Not only was Smith’s greatest intellectual achievement stolen, but the Geological Society sold its map for considerably less than Smith’s. At a time when Smith was in desperate financial straits and hopeful that his map would generate needed income, the appearance of Greenough’s map was a vicious blow. Coming on the heels of Smith’s imprisonment for debt for most of the summer of 1819, the publication of the plagiarized map left him in despair.

In the end, virtue did triumph. Smith left London for the countryside, eventually settling in Yorkshire. Outside of London he found opportunities for lecturing and surveying, as well as a new patron, Sir John Vanden Bempde Johnstone, a member of the Geological Society. A new generation of geologists eventually came to the fore in England. They were appreciative of Smith and his work. (Winchester does not explain the changing social condition of English science or why the new generation of geologists acknowledged Smith, except to say that they were men willing to dirty their hands in field research.) In 1831, when the Geological Society was to present the first Wollaston Medal in recognition of accomplishment in geological research, it decided to award it to Smith. A royal pension soon followed. In England, control of geology, and science more generally, was in the process of moving from the hands of the dilettantes into the hands of those who did science full time, whether for a living, or in the case of someone such as Charles Darwin, with an undeniable commitment to research. The recognition of Smith was an indication of this movement.

To fully appreciate the contributions of any scientist to his or her discipline requires some knowledge of the field. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing a biographer of a scientist is conveying sufficient knowledge of the science for the reader to gain that appreciation without getting lost in technical language or scientific jargon. Winchester enthusiastically meets that challenge with excellent nontechnical descriptions, and he also provides a very useful glossary of geological terms.

Unfortunately, there are some historical slips in the book. For example, Winchester has clipper ships waiting at the dock a generation before they were built. Although Winchester is sure that Sir John Johnstone became a patron of Smith, he does not seem to be sure when—1828, when Sir John gave Smith a sinecure, or two years earlier, in connection with the first efforts to gain proper recognition of Smith by the Geological Society. Winchester’s discussions of the relationship between science and religion are influenced by a somewhat ahistorical and simplistic view of what was a fairly complex relationship in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and a tendency to judge by present standards. Most seriously, in his eagerness to paint Greenough and the Geological Society as villains, Winchester becomes sloppy about chronology and causation. Although he never actually gives a publication date for the Greenough map, other standard sources date it to 1820, some months after Smith was released from debtors’ prison on August 31, 1819. Winchester writes that “the precise nature of cause and effect can be argued about,” but he offers no evidence that there was any cause and effect. The map’s appearance did not coincide, as Winchester claims, “almost exactly with [Smith’s] committal to debtors’ prison,” but months later. What Winchester does offer is plenty of evidence that Smith was a poor manager of money, that most of his financial wounds were self-inflicted, and that neither the Smith map nor the Greenough map sold very well. It is not evident from anything that Winchester writes that Smith’s financial situation would have been very different if Greenough had not published his version of the geological map. Perhaps Smith would have sold more copies, but a financial crash seemed inevitable, given Smith’s inability to live within his means.

There is no pretense by Winchester of neutral weighing of the facts. He frequently crosses the boundary that divides biographer from advocate. Smith is one of his heroes. Nonetheless, this study, based on extensive research in manuscript sources, including correspondence and diaries (although Winchester eschewed formal citations), fills a great gap in the history of English geology. William Smith was an interesting man and an important scientist. He deserves to be better known. Thanks to Winchester, he will be.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (May 15, 2001): 1706.

Publishers Weekly 248 (June 4, 2001): 23.

The Washington Post Book World, August 12, 2001, p. 2.

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