Editorial Review / Publisher's Information:
Hidden behind velvet curtains above a stairway in a house in London's Piccadilly is an enormous and beautiful hand-coloured map - the first geological map of anywhere in the world. Its maker was a farmer's son named William Smith. Born in 1769 his life was beset by troubles. This title tells his story.
Simon Winchester has a very simple formula, of which The Map That Changed the World is a perfect example--namely that the history we have forgotten is infinitely more interesting than the history with which we are all familiar. After the success of The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which documented the life of WC Minor, the American surgeon and major contributor to the first Oxford English Dictionary, Winchester now turns his attention to William Smith, the 19th-century Briton who can justly lay claim to being the founding father of geology.
The book has all the usual attributes of a pacy historical read: a self-educated, unrecognised scientist spends years roaming the British countryside, compiling a map of the geological layers beneath the surface, only to have his ideas ripped off and to wind up homeless and penniless in Yorkshire with a wife who is going bonkers. And it gets better: in a bizarre Dickensian twist, Smith finally gets his just accolades when he is recognised by a kindly liberal nobleman and is reintroduced to London society as the geologist par excellence. Of itself, the story would be more than enough recommendation but there is a subtext running though the book that is in many ways just as compelling--namely, how some parts of history get written in stone and others in dust. Most secondary-school students get to learn of Charles Darwin and The Voyage of the Beagle. Yet how many people could stick their hands up and say they had heard of Smith? But is evolution any more important a field as geology? Is history ultimately an exercise in who has the best PR? Winchester may not have the answer, but he'll certainly make you think.--John Crace