The Map That Changed the World

By Simon Winchester

With last year’s The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester showed it was possible to make a bestseller out of the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. In The Map That Changed the World he returns with another true history of nineteenth-century intellectual obsession: William Smith’s drawing of the world’s first geological map.

Winchester makes a lot out of the fact that William Smith is not a household name. He even begins his story with a description of Smith’s massive map of the geology of England and Wales, completed in 1815, hidden behind some curtains at Burlington House, where tourists pass by it every day unaware.

Winchester considers such neglect nothing short of shameful. Aside from being a beautiful work in itself, Smith’s map had tremendous importance, symbolic and real, for the development of geology, a science he is considered by many to have virtually invented. It is also a “classic representation of the ambition of its day” – a work “of almost unimaginably vast scope that required great vision, energy, patience, and commitment to complete.” Finally, what Winchester describes as the signal difference that sets Smith’s map apart from such projects as the OED or the Human Genome, is the fact that it was entirely the work of just one man.

Being the self-educated son of a village blacksmith wasn’t a handicap for someone intent on creating a new science. What was important was the opportunity to make first hand observations. This was provided by the take off in the English coal industry, which made landowners greedy to know what riches lay beneath their fields, and necessitated, before the coming of the railway, the digging of canals through vast swathes of countryside.

From his fieldwork Smith came to the conclusion that there was a regular order to the stratification of minerals, and that these strata could be classified by date through a consideration of the fossil remains to be found in them. From there he could imagine a geological map of England and Wales.

Unfortunately, Smith’s triumph did not lead to immediate fame or fortune. Shortly after the publication of his great map he found himself bankrupt and his glory stolen by a group of aristocratic dilettantes who copied his map. “Penury and plagiarism” were the two scourges of Smith’s life.

While certainly unfortunate, there is nothing particularly surprising about Smith’s difficulties. Being the self-educated son of a village blacksmith was a handicap for gaining respectability in class-conscious English society. And academic politics, such as they were in the nineteenth century, were already very much part of the game. Another book of scholarly discovery published just last year, The Keys of Egypt, describes the similar difficulties faced by Smith’s contemporary Jean-Francois Champollion in getting his key to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics recognized.

But Winchester also protests too much on behalf of his hero. While a remarkable achievement, Smith’s map hardly changed the world. It was the product of an age of transforming scientific discoveries, not a cause. And it is simply not true that Smith’s “personal labours for the good of all” cost him his fortune. He ended up in debtor’s prison because, despite rising to the top of a highly paid profession, he couldn’t manage his personal finances, lived beyond his means, and made a number of disastrous investments.

Both the human and the scientific story are fascinating, which is important because Winchester, when you get right down to it, is a total hack. The brush he takes to history is so sweeping it is almost vulgar. The traditional English village commons, for example, were not “insanity.” They were simply inconsistent with the development of a modern capitalist economy.

The writing complements the attitude. Everything is in the superlative, every point charged with intensity and made dramatic with rhetorical repetitions. The language seems to almost squeak with the strain, and the hectoring tone is not helped by the lapses in style. Despite acknowledging the services of three editors, two professional copy-editors, and an entire class of proofreaders, there are far too many repetitive constructions and redundancies (like the claim that Smith pursued geology “for its own sake alone”).

The Map That Changed the World is still a good read, albeit limited by some considerable gaps in Smith’s biography. “The horrors of his imprisonment and the miseries of his marriage,” we learn, “remain the two great nonsubjects in William Smith’s recorded life.” Such nonsubjects that we can’t even say for sure whether they were horrors or miseries. Winchester should be given credit for bringing an important chapter in the history of science before the general reader. But his map of Smith’s life is not without strata that remain unclassified.

Review first published September 22, 2001.


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