The Map that Changed the World (2001) by Simon Winchester is a fascinating historical biography. The book tells the story of William Smith who single-handedly created the first Geological map of Britain. It is another book where Winchester writes a fine biographical story of a person who made a huge contribution to a field and who led an interesting life. Smith also, remarkably created this map on his own. This contrasts with the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and other great compendiums of knowledge that were the work of sizable teams.
Smith was born in 1769 and was the first son of a black smith. He was born into a radically changing and improving world. Technology, science and capitalism were freeing humanity from poverty and oppression. It was a world where belief in the West said that the world was 6000 years old. Smith’s father died when he was brought up by his Uncle and Aunt. On their farm in Oxfordshire there are pound stones of a fairly regular size that are that size because they contain a fossil.
Smith became a surveyor after meeting Edward Webb who was surveying in Smith’s area. In order to move goods and in particular coal around canals were being dug all over Britain. Surveyors were in great demand and good surveyors could make quite a bit of money. Smith became a good surveyor and went around the country surveying. He also examined the rocks and formations where ever he went. He struck out on his own and went freelance, but also incurred significant debt in the beginnings of what was to ruin him in future.
After some time surveying Smith had become so interested in the new science of geology that he started to do geological maps, the first he did was one around Bath. After this he wanted to do something grander and indeed began a map of the whole of the British Isles. Eventually a bounty was offered by Sir Joseph Banks and the Royal Society to complete this which Smith did.
Unfortunately by the time Smith had completed the map he had also incurred significant debt which caused him to have to go into debtors prison. He was then released but was unable to make much of an income. But after a short time the huge contribution his map made to Geology was recognized and he was awarded the first Wollaston Medal for Geology and managed a reasonable retirement.
The book is really well done. Winchester skillfully interleaves the changes in Britain, the changes in science, the geology of Britain and the life of William Smith and the host of interesting characters around him. Winchester also has quite an interest in geology and this comes through well. A fine read.