The Map That Changed the World Simon Winchester Harper Collins

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once said, ‘The highest wisdom has but one science – the science of the whole – the science explaining the whole creation and man’s place in it.’ Even today, despite huge advances in knowledge and understanding, we still wonder about the mystery of creation. The answer to Why, let alone How, remains mired in controversy. But at least we do know When. That is thanks, in the first instance, to William Smith, a 19th Century surveyor from the south-east of England, who realized that the layers of the earth’s rock represented the passage of time.

Simon Winchester, the author of the best-selling ‘The Professor and the Madman’, has turned his attention from the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary to the birth of geology. He studied the subject as an undergraduate and, clearly, his love for rocks and nature has stayed with him. ‘The Map that Changed the World’, is part biography, and part Winchesterian disquisition on his favorite memories of rural England. This is not a conventional book by any means and will probably excite and infuriate readers in equal measure.

However, Winchester should be forgiven for having been seduced by his subject. Geology is one of those little-known areas of science whose dull and dusty image belies its true status as the keeper of Earth’s secrets. Until the advent of William Smith, most people believed that God had created the world some five-and-a-half thousand years ago. As for those strange-looking rocks and shells which defied explanation, the religious-minded claimed that such things were simply proof of divine power.

By the late Eighteenth Century the study of geology had become a gentleman’s pastime (with a few women such as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire joining suit). William Smith, however, was the son of a village blacksmith. He fell in love with rocks as boy while watching buxom dairymaids use ‘poundstones’ – actually ossified sea-urchins – as counterweights on their butter scales. Notwithstanding the beauty of the country maids, what fascinated William was the fact that these ‘poundstones’ invariably weighed 22 ounces, and always looked the same. Furthermore, none could satisfactorily explain how these long-dead sea creatures had ended up in a country field. In order to learn more, young William apprenticed himself to a master surveyor.

He reached adulthood just as coal and canals became a magical combination for large landowners. Anyone lucky enough to be sitting on a deep coal-seam, and near a canal route to London or Liverpool, could become rich beyond dreams. Therefore everyone wanted a surveyor who knew how to find coal and where to dig canals. By the time he was twenty-five, William had a well-paying and prestigious job as land surveyor for the largest canal scheme in Somerset. It was while digging up great swathes of the countryside that he noticed something extraordinary: wherever he drilled the layers of rocks were always in the same order. Moreover, different layers produced different fossils. This led him to deduce that if a poundstone turned up in Scotland, the rock containing it would be the same age as those in Somerset. The word he used to describe the layers was ‘strata’, from which we have stratification. Nowadays, Smith’s observation is known as the Principle of Faunal Succession: it is the means by which we measure the earth’s age.

William was wildly excited by his discovery and immediately resolved to make a geological map of the entire country. He began on a small scale with a survey map of five miles around the Georgian city of Bath. Satisfied with his results, he started on his mammoth and quixotic journey around Britain. However, he had two great obstacles facing him. The first was the expense and breadth of the task. The second was more difficult to negotiate, his own character. William was an obsessive individual, naïve in some ways, unimaginative except when it came to rocks, and slightly hopeless in his business affairs.

He took up a series of engineering jobs up and down the country, all the while concentrating on his grand scheme. He crossed over 10,000 miles in a single-minded pursuit to see every stretch of British soil. Yet, although William managed to attract a number of investors the money was slow in coming. At his wit’s end, he turned to the newly-formed Geographical Society. This proved to be catastrophic. Not only did the Society snub him in no uncertain terms, but the president, George Greenough, persuaded one of William’s ex-pupils to hand over copies of all his master’s work. Greenough then set out to produce a rival map based on William’s techniques and observations. Worse was to come. Greenough, who seems to have been utterly devoid of morals, used his position to undermine public confidence in William’s map. Then, he took advantage of his financial superiority to undersell the plagiarised work against his rival’s. William was ruined and, in 1819, spent 80 days in a debtors’ prison.

He emerged from his ordeal a broken man. His wife had become insane, his house and possessions were in the hands of the bailiffs, and worst of all, perhaps, he felt that his reputation was gone. It would be unfair to give away the rest of William’s roller-coaster story. Suffice to say, that his map now hangs in London in the magnificent Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy. Drawn and colored in the most vibrant colors, this 8’ by 6’ map is a startling sight. Its beauty is shocking, its complexity breathtaking – all the more so considering that he worked alone and with only the crudest of instruments.

Winchester generously acknowledges the help of Keele University professor Hugh Torrens, who is writing a multi-volume biography of William Smith. He dismisses his own book as an ‘hors d’oeuvre’ to the magnum opus to come. Such humility is not only admirable but also, in this case, probably warranted. Those who are unfamiliar with geology may find ‘The Map’ heavy-going and confusing, while those who do know something about the field may feel burdened by the weight of undigested information. That said, William Smith’s life is an inspirational story and it is affectionately told by his biographer.

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