‘The Map That Changed the World’ by Simon Winchester ****

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.

9780140280395The Map That Changed the World became an international bestseller following its publication in 2001, on the two-hundredth anniversary of Smith’s first map.  The Spectator declares ‘Winchester is the perfect narrator for this lovely story of success against the odds’.  The Financial Times calls the book ‘a fascinating tribute to the man who put the unseen world of the underground on display’, and the New Statesman comments ‘this is what a model of popular history can be.’

The Map That Changed the World tells the true story of William Smith.  Though he was ‘not rich or well-connected’, his passion for fossils and ‘his twenty-year obsession with single-handedly mapping the geology of Britain’ mark him out as a man who should be praised.  Smith, however, pursued his interests at great personal cost; his wife suffered madness, and his work was stolen by jealous men who eventually pushed him into ruin.   Although Smith became ‘one of the most significant men of the nineteenth century’, he is largely forgotten in the modern world.

‘Strata’ Smith, as Winchester occasionally calls him, was a man who ‘crossed boundaries of class, wealth and science to produce a map that fundamentally changed the way we view the world.’  His first map was produced in 1801, and a revised version appeared in 1815.  This later map hangs behind ‘a pair of huge sky-blue velvet curtains’ in Burlington House, London.  It measures over eight by six feet, and is ‘the work of a craftsman, lovingly done, the culmination of years of study, months of careful labour.’  This was the first geological map of anywhere in the world, which alone ‘heralded the beginnings of a whole new science…  It is a map that laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin.’  

Smith’s output is remarkable for many a reason.  Not only did he create the first geological map in the world, but he did so entirely by himself.  In his prologue, Winchester writes: ‘All the Herculean labours that were involved in the mapping of the imagined underside of an entire country were accomplished not by an army or a legion or a committee or a team, but by the lone individual who finally put his signature to the completed document: William Smith, then forty-six years old, the orphaned son of the village blacksmith from the unsung hamlet of Churchill in Oxfordshire.’

In The Map That Changed the World, Winchester has conducted his own research into Smith and the social and scientific climate in which he lived.  He has also included fragments of Smith’s diaries and letters, in order to present a portrait of a ‘long-forgotten man’.  Winchester opens his account in 1819, when Smith is released from a London debtor’s prison known as the King’s Bench.  The author both sets the scene and captures Smith for his readers immediately: ‘Some less-charitable souls might call him a rather plain-looking man, perhaps even a little ugly.  His forehead slants backwards, a trifle alarmingly.  His nose is rather too large for comfort.  His mutton-chop whiskers are wayward.  But in most of the pictures he seems to be wearing an expression that serves by way of compensation for the facial shortcomings: he seems by his looks at once tolerant, kindly and perhaps even vaguely amused by the dull complexities of his life.’

Winchester’s commentary then shifts backward in time to examine Smith’s life.  He was born at the beginning of a period of immense change, in most fields.  Winchester writes: ‘And when Smith was born, the rate and scale of alteration to society was such that even those in so small and isolated a settlement as Churchill, Oxfordshire, would be bound to notice.’  It is this which impacts upon Smith, urging him to leave his tiny hamlet as soon as he is able, to go and work on designing a network of canals.

It was when Smith was employed at a mine near Bath that he really notices the differences in the rock structure of the earth.  Winchester comments: ‘Smith could only stare at the junction between the rocks and wonder – why?  How?  How could one possibly make sense of such a bizarre arrangement?’  But make sense of it Smith did, refining his thoughts and research over time, and leading him to make a number of important, even pivotal, discoveries.

The Map That Changed the World appealed to me on so many levels.  I am always keen to learn about figures who have been largely forgotten over the centuries, and knowing very little about Smith piqued my interest.  I was also a keen collector of fossils as a child, and very much enjoy cartography too.  

Here, Winchester has presented an engaging account of a man who so deserves to be remembered.  He has included a wealth of extra information of interest to the reader, including a stratigraphical column with the timespan of each geological period; a glossary of terms; notes on sources; a list of recommended further reading; and an index.  The frontispiece is adorned with a copy of Smith’s 1815 geological map.  Winchester’s writing is engaging and highly accessible, and he wonderfully handles his primary material.  Quite a dramatic tale in parts, The Map That Changed the World held my interest throughout, and whilst informative, it never felt overloaded with facts.  Anyone remotely interested in cartography, geography, geology, or just the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, is bound to get a lot out of this wonderful book.

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