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Sep 28 2010

Book review: The Map that Changed the World

william_smith_map_big These are some notes on “The Map that changed the World: The Tale of William Smith and The Birth of a Science” by Simon Winchester. It is the story of the creation, by William Smith, of the first geological map of England and Wales, and the first such map on this scale in the world. A geological map shows the distribution of different rock types on the earth’s surface. Sedimentary rocks are laid down in horizontal layers, known as strata, subsequently these layers may be deformed and distorted. Therefore the distribution of rock types on the surface is a slice this distorted underground structure. William Smith’s work went beyond simple mapping the surface by recording what went on under the surface.

William Smith was born in 1769, as the industrial revolution was getting under way. Enclosures, coal mining, canal building and drainage work were building blocks to Smith’s maps; as a young man he became involved in surveying as a result of enclosures around his birthplace of Churchill, near Oxford. Following this experience in surveying he became involved in coal mining in Somerset. Here he saw directly the strata beneath the surface and learnt their individual character. Then he was involved in surveying for a canal to link the Somerset coal mines to the main canal system. This combines surveying with geology, since the type of rock the canal goes over determines how easy it is to dig the canal and whether it leaks.

A key insight was that the fossils found within a strata could be used to exactly correlate two distinct outcrops – in the absence of fossils two outcrops might look very similar but actually belong to different strata. Secondly, strata always appeared in the same order: A always comes below B, which comes below C. In places, because subsequent distortion of the rock, this ordering may not be obvious. It was Smith who was responsible for “” which identified the order of strata occurring in England.

Fossils had become collectors items around the time of Smith’s birth. As a result of the increasing awareness of the fossils in the surroundings, sea animals many miles from the sea and fossils with no living counterparts, the biblical account of the creation of the earth was becoming increasingly shaky. In a sense it is geology that brought Darwin to his theory of evolution, the study of rocks makes it increasingly clear that the world is unimaginably old and that in this vast space of time there is room for evolution. In common with Darwin, Smith’s great work was a long time in preparation.

William Smith was dogged by financial problems, he had taken up a mortgage to buy a substantial estate whilst surveying for a canal and was then promptly sacked. Throughout his life he appears to have spent rather enthusiastically, sometimes simply to be seen as having an address in the right place. Ultimately William Smith went to debtor’s prison for a short period in 1819, a few years after his map had first been published. On his release he moved to Yorkshire where he worked on various minor projects in obscurity. He was later returned to the public eye to receive the first Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London, along with the recognition he deserved. 

Earlier the Geological Society, under the presidency of George Greenough treated Smith shamefully: plagiarising a substantial chunk of his work on the geological map to produce their own version which was published not long after his, at lower cost. Furthermore they refused him admission to the society largely, it seems, on the basis of class. Smith had some previous experience of being plagiarised whilst in working in Bath, by a reverend! Although the subject of class arises a number of times through the book it doesn’t seem to have caused Smith huge impediment, aside from his initial contact with the Geological Society, throughout his life he worked with the landed gentry on various projects and it seems he was valued for this work. In addition he was apparently quite well known to Sir Joseph Banks – long time President of the Royal Society.

It’s striking that in addition to the Royal Society in London, the rest of the country was apparently riddled with philosophical societies, Bath is mentioned in particular in this regard but what really brought it home to me was mention of the Scarborough Philosophical Society, somewhere one wouldn’t now associate with such things.

The book is written in something of a docu-drama style with some sections reading a little like a novel, this is a mixed blessing to my mind – it enhances readability however it always leaves me with the fear that I’m being tricked into believing detail that doesn’t exist. I feel something of a connection to this work; I grew up on the Jurassic coast in Dorset (although this in a time before the marketing term had stuck) and did geology AO level whilst at school. It’s tempting to believe that England was the perfect spot for William Smith to be born: the geology of England is very varied and the industrial revolution provided a perfect excuse for detailed rummaging around in the rocks.

You can see the modern, interactive version of the geological map of Britain here.

3 comments

  1. Clare Dudman

    Bath still has a thriving lit and phil society, as does Chester! The Chester one was started by Charles Kingsley, I believe. There's also a good one in Hull and Heaton Chapel. I've given talks at all these and there's huge audiences! You don't often hear about them, but they still exist.

    Very interesting review. I've been meaning to read this for ages- and this makes me want to more.

  2. SomeBeans

    @ClareDudman So there is! "Chester Society Of Natural Science Literature And Art", and founded by Charles Kingsley – as you mentioned. Bit of a roundabout way of finding out about it!

    I shall return it to the library on saturday – it's a gentle read.

  3. Clare Dudman

    They don't advertise very much, do they? I can't remember how I discovered about them, but it was only recently and I've been living in Chester for years.

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