The Map That Changed the World

William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology
Narrated by: Simon Winchester
Length: 9 hrs and 59 mins
4 out of 5 stars (522 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

From the author of the best-selling The Professor and the Madman comes the fascinating story of William Smith, the orphaned son of an English country blacksmith, who became obsessed with creating the world's first geological map and ultimately became the father of modern geology.

In 1793 William Smith, a canal digger, made a startling discovery that was to turn the fledgling science of the history of the earth - and a central plank of established Christian religion - on its head. He noticed that the rocks he was excavating were arranged in layers; more important, he could see quite clearly that the fossils found in one layer were very different from those found in another. And out of that realization came an epiphany: that by following the fossils, one could trace layers of rocks as they dipped and rose and fell - clear across England and, indeed, clear across the world. Determined to publish his profoundly important discovery by creating a map that would display the hidden underside of England, he spent 20 years traveling the length and breadth of the kingdom by stagecoach and on foot, studying rock outcrops and fossils, piecing together the image of this unseen universe.

In 1815 he published his epochal and remarkably beautiful hand-painted map, more than eight feet tall and six feet wide. But four years after its triumphant publication, and with his young wife going steadily mad to the point of nymphomania, Smith ended up in debtors' prison, a victim of plagiarism, swindled out of his recognition and his profits. He left London for the north of England and remained homeless for 10 long years as he searched for work. It wasn't until 1831, when his employer, a sympathetic nobleman, brought him into contact with the Geological Society of London - which had earlier denied him a fellowship - that at last this quiet genius was showered with the honors long overdue him. He was summoned south to receive the society's highest award, and King William IV offered him a lifetime pension.

The Map That Changed the World is, at its foundation, a very human tale of endurance and achievement, of one man's dedication in the face of ruin and homelessness. The world's coal and oil industry, its gold mining, its highway systems, and its railroad routes were all derived entirely from the creation of Smith's first map; and with a keen eye and thoughtful detail, Simon Winchester unfolds the poignant sacrifice behind this world-changing discovery.

©2001 Simon Winchester (P)2003 HarperCollinsPublishers, Inc.

Critic Reviews

"Winchester is a fine stylist who also has a fine, clear reading voice. He fully engages listeners, not only with the excitement of Smith's life and work, but even with geological explications that would have been pretty dull in science class." (Publishers Weekly)
"It's an authoritative delivery and an enjoyable experience." (AudioFile)
"This is just the kind of creative nonfiction that elevates a seemingly arcane topic into popular fare." (Booklist)
"Winchester brings Smith's struggle to life in clear and beautiful language." (The New York Times Book Review)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Who knew rocks could be so deceptive?

The story of the self educated man who made the first real geological map of Britain, and how he was ruined by the greed of those who sought the title of geologist without getting their hands dirty. I think, however, this might be improved by actually being able to see the maps discussed. It would be nice if one could actually get some of the illustrations or photos or whatever in the audible versions.

19 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Quite a ripping yarn!

My first Winchester book, and it has led me to a happy and edifying series of nonfiction titles. I found it difficult to follow in print, but read aloud, it became so interesting that I've listened to it three times. So far. Each time another element becomes clearer, whether it's the class insouciance of hereditary privilege, or the riveting biography of Smith, or the extent of the changes wrought by Smith's three dimensional brilliance.

Winchester's vocabulary is extensive and humbling, and his reading is exemplary. I will probably listen again.

15 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Another great Simon Winchester!

I greatly enjoyed this book. Winchester is a fantastic writer, and is one of the few people that actually do a decent job reading their own work. He does go off on tangents, and is a bit redundant, probably so you can remember where he left off when he gets back from his little sidetrips, but I enjoy most of his diversions so I don't mind.

Fun for fans of history, geology and geography, and just plain good writing!

9 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Geology made interesting

This was actually a biography of William Smith and a very interesting story. I've had difficulty getting through some other geology books, but wanting to fill a gap in my education, I tried this one. It was a winner. Besides geology, it contained a lot of interesting British History and showed the dark side of human behavior. I will probably have to Google stratigraphy to better learn the names of the rock layers, but the book was motivating and enjoyable wheather or not you are into rocks.

17 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Enjoyable

I enjoy the history of the earth and the history of societies and this book encapsulates the two rather well. You get a good idea of the time which Smith lived, the ideas that abounded, and the man himself. William Smith reminds me a bit of Tesla in that he was a brilliant, eccentric man who was ambitious, but for some reason didn't finish things that could have solidified his career. Other books will do better to describe in detail the history of the earth via stratigraphy, but few will paint a better picture of how it was dicovered. It's just too bad WIlliam Smith wasn't a better diarist because it would have allowed Winchester to offer more from the mind of a man who's thoughts seem to be as hidden as the fossils he helped to unearth. A nice compliment to this book would be Alan Cutler's "The Seahell on the Mountaintop".

4 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

An amazing book!

What made the experience of listening to The Map That Changed the World the most enjoyable?

Who would have suspected that a book telling the story of the birth of geology as a science in England would be so fascinating and full of intrigue and drama! This was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, well written and beautifully presented. Clearly the author has a feel for the subject matter and presents it with charm and style.

What other book might you compare The Map That Changed the World to and why?

If you like history and science, just about anything that answers the question; how did this get started will do. Audible science offerings are full of books like this.

Which character – as performed by Simon Winchester – was your favorite?

William Smith of course!

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Yes in terms of being able to maintain my interest. But I found myself listening to some chapters over just to enjoy the story and writing more.

Any additional comments?

I suppose it takes a certain leap of faith to listen to a book about geology. But really...this is good stuff. Interesting and even exciting.

4 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

Important history

If you could sum up The Map That Changed the World in three words, what would they be?

observation, comprehension, re/evolution (cheating a little on that last "word")

What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?

The awareness that the earth was much older and dynamic than previously supposed is the crux, and the author does an excellent job placing the key observations within the economic setting of mining coal and digging canal, which he relates to one another very logically and clearly. The less interesting aspect was the class and personal rivalries that slowed acceptance (a little) but mostly threatened the credit due to Smith.

Would you listen to another book narrated by Simon Winchester?

yes

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

no

Any additional comments?

The author takes too much time at the beginning telling us, repeatedly, that the findings were important without actually telling us how or why. Maybe that is necessary in popularized science. He also expects the readers to know English geography better than I do. His personal experience on the beaches during school contribute only marginally to the main story. But the main story is (actually, finally) so important that these amount to quibbles.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

Long, Better as an Article than a book

I've read all of Winchester and if you love geology, this may be the book for you, but as I told some friends, a book that uses the word chromo-stytography can only be so entertaining. This keeps turning over the man's personal life and you get a biography that feels stretched. The book is also fattened with a long interview at the end about other books by the author. So its thinner than you think, and should be thinner still. I don't think there was a book here though I learned something and the story is fascinating, but it should be a section in another longer work, not its own stand-out.

7 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Where Do Fossils Really Come From?

As a youth, William Smith wondered where fossils really came from. The common belief was that God grew them in the rocks to demonstrate His omnipresence. Smith’s search for more mechanical origins gave birth to the science of geology.

“The Map that Changed the World” by Simon Winchester, chronicles Smith’s life as geology’s first hands-on scientist. Born in England in 1769, Smith came from a yeoman’s background. The diligent youth acquired the skills to become a land surveyor so as to earn a living while studying the earth’s geology. Smith was an excellent geologist but a poor businessman and eventually ended up in debtors’ prison.

But persistence paid off in the form of Smith’s series of handsome, geological maps of England that conveyed his understanding of fossils and the geological strata in which he found them. This knowledge paved the way for such greats as Richard Owen, who coined the term dinosaur, and Charles Darwin.

Simon Winchester, his own reader, does an excellent job of describing not only Smith’s life but also such things as how debtors’ prisons worked and how Smith created his maps. This book is for those interested in the history of science in its sociological context.

11 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

first rate

Simon Winchester pulled together a ton of interesting information and weaved it into a fascinating story of how the Oxford English Dictionary came to life. Beyond the facts, the language he uses and his terrific narration make this audiobook first rate.

5 people found this helpful