The Map That Changed the World

by Simon Winchester

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Simon Winchester takes a decidedly partisan stance in advocating for the importance of William “Strata” Smith in the history of geology. Examining the field’s development in England, Winchester sets out to show that Smith was the true pioneer in analyzing and mapping the earth’s layer in the way we now understand them. Prior to his field-based research in the early 1800s, scientists and amateurs alike had believed the oceanic activity was responsible for stratification. Smith labored long, hard, and impecuniously to discover and then prove otherwise. In particular, by noting the regularity with which particular fossils occurred in particular strata, he provided ways to characterize and diagnose the composition of strata in far distant locations.

The problems that Winchester has with Smith’s reputation stem from both the general reactions of other geologists, who formed the Royal Geological Society and excluded him from members, and the specific action of undercutting Smith’s important map—the object of the title. While Smith created a large-scale, detailed—and still remarkably precise—map of England’s geologic strata, the expenses of production and printing ultimately proved greater than he could recoup from the sales. This would not have been the case, Winchester contends, had the RGS not issued a very similar map and sold it at a lower price. Charges of plagiarism form a large part of Winchester’s complaint, but the unfair pricing advantages is almost as significant to him. Later in Smith’s life, the RGS honored him and awarded him a living stipend.

Smith’s story also locates the burgeoning field of earth science within the class conflicts of British society of the time. Smith was not college-educated but rather began as a surveyor. He physically worked in the field and had, Winchester insists, an unparalleled understanding of the composition of soil and rock. The unwillingness of the “learned” scientists to accept him specifically or to acknowledge the value of field-based research are two issues that Winchester explores in relation to research as then conducted.

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