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Atlantic Unbound | August 29, 2001
The World Beneath Our Feet

A conversation with Simon Winchester, whose new book, The Map That Changed the World, rescues a pioneering geologist from obscurity


The Map That Changed the World

The Map That Changed the World
by Simon Winchester
256 pages, $26.00

ong before the Industrial Revolution, European scholars recognized that the earth was not flat. Cartographers drew maps depicting the round earth as best they could on a flat medium, but while these maps were highly accurate, they delineated only the surface. In 1815, however, a richly color-coded map drawn by a man named William Smith detailed the earth's subterranean features for the first time. According to Simon Winchester, the author of The Map That Changed the World, Smith's map would become a cornerstone of the study of geology—and one of the most undeservedly overlooked works of science produced in the modern era.

William Smith grew up in a time when few in his position could expect significant upward mobility. An impoverished orphan from Oxfordshire, Smith became interested in fossils at an early age and soon developed a passion for rocks that earned him the nickname "Strata." His job as a surveyor enabled him to travel the countryside noting various rock formations and puzzling out relationships between them by studying fossil-distribution patterns. Smith came to realize two key things: first, that one can identify the relative age of a layer of rocks by comparing the fossils that are found in it to those found in other layers. And second, that these layers tend to be arranged in a consistent pattern. Using these concepts, and his knowledge of rock formations throughout the country, he was able to create a geological map of England, Wales, and a section of Scotland. With this new map, educated readers could easily grasp Smith's basic principles and use them not only to understand underlying rock formations, but also to predict, with uncanny accuracy, the location of untapped natural resources hidden within certain layers.

Though the map proved enormously beneficial to British industry, which was eager for ever more coal and iron, recognition eluded Smith because much of the scientific community dismissed him as a working-class upstart and publicly ignored his map while privately appropriating its findings for use in their own work. Winchester paints a picture of deceit and conspiracy that, when combined with a few financial mistakes by Smith, led to the confiscation of his home, and his imprisonment for ten weeks in a debtor's prison in London.

Near the end of his life, when many of his antagonists held less sway in the scientific establishment, Smith did finally receive some recognition, and in 1831 he was awarded the Geological Society of London's first Wollaston Medal, geology's equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Since his death, however, public knowledge of William Smith has faded, and he has been reduced to a minor character mentioned briefly in history-of-science textbooks or in university-level geology courses.

This brings us back to Simon Winchester. A history writer with a degree in geology from Oxford, Winchester is well-qualified to recount William Smith's story and explain the significance of his revolutionary map. In the same way that he shone a spotlight on the obscure lexicographer W. C. Minor and his contribution to the Oxford English Dictionary in The Professor and the Madman (1998)—an international bestseller—so, too, does he now illuminate the life and work of a forgotten scientific pioneer.

Simon Winchester is an author and journalist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Harper's, and Condé Nast Traveler. His books include The River at the Center of the World, about the Yangtze River, and The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans. The Map that Changed the World is his nineteenth book.

Winchester recently spoke with me by telephone from the Berkshires.

—Jordi Weinstock

Philip Gourevitch
Simon Winchester   

How did William Smith's map change the world?

I think the two crucial words here are "predict" and "extrapolate." Once you knew what was on the surface of the earth and you could identify different rocks in different places as being the same rocks—because you knew what fossils were in them—then you could follow the precepts Smith laid down and begin to extrapolate the way those rocks disappeared under and curved and wiggled about below the surface of the earth. And once you could do that you could then predict, with great accuracy (obviously the accuracy increasing as the sophistication of your mapping increased), what mineral resources you would find under the surface of the earth; the coal, the gas, the oil, the uranium, the gold, and whatever else. So in a heartbeat, really, nations were suddenly able to realize and then to exploit what lay beneath them. Up to that point, up to 1815, you really only managed to scratch the surface, almost literally, of the earth. You saw coal outcropping; you saw gold glinting in the hills. You went and got it, and maybe you followed the seam a little way underground. But once you could predict what lay a thousand feet below the surface, or 2000 feet, then suddenly you could make use of your natural resources. I think that was the way that Smith's map changed the world. It made nations aware of and able to exploit their natural mineral resources.

So did similar mapping projects arise in other countries?

Almost immediately. The French and the Germans had them going by 1816 or 1817. Geological maps of America were being made as early as 1822. So all of a sudden any country that used this technique realized that it was sitting on something of enormous value.

The Map That Changed the World clearly shows that you think William Smith was under-appreciated as a founding father of science. Why do you think he has remained relatively unknown? Why should people know his name?

I think he is unknown because of his origins, quite honestly—because he was so ordinary a person. In the geological industry, or, if you like, the whole scientific industry, there was something of the cult of celebrity. I mean, look at the cults of Darwin and Huxley and Sedgewick and Mercheson and Einstein. Maybe it was the way they projected themselves, maybe they had friends who were ecstatic about their achievements. Smith was alone, he was working class, and he had, except for a short period of his life, very little by way of influential friends. And then he was cheated. He was plagiarized, he was ruined, he was shunned by society, as it were, and all of these things happened, coincidentally, to conspire to leave his legacy very little known. Not the least of these tribulations was that for years the map that was publicly considered the map that changed the world was one done by the president of the Geological Society, which was almost an exact copy, a plagiarism, of Smith's map. So in a way, the Geological Society of London got the credit for creating the map when in fact they had stolen it from Smith—and Smith's achievement was somewhat overlooked. So it's a combination of facts, but deep down I think it was the fact of his extremely humble origins and his ordinary background.

When William Smith was growing up, it seemed that science was the realm of the wealthy, but you point out in your book that by the end of his life that was starting to change. What were some of the forces behind that change? Did William Smith have any role?

Unwittingly I think he did have a role. I don't think he set out and said, "I am going to change the social makeup of the science that I am studying," but I think the sheer force of discovery swept away the pretenses of the aristocracy that dabbled in the science. Suddenly people were making discoveries that required real brain power, that required, in geology, real brawn. I mean, people would have to go out from the drawing rooms of London and travel around and actually tramp about in hobnail boots and hit rocks with hammers. This is the kind of thing that perfumed dandies weren't terribly keen on doing. They liked to sit back in their drawing rooms and look at these exquisite objects from the earth. But going through the grime and the heat to actually get them was something that practical men were much better at doing. So geology, like many sciences, slowly and steadily became the realm of the practical man, of the thinking man, rather than the dilettante and the aristocrat.

So before Smith what was the science of geology like?

Very primitive indeed. It was dominated, of course, by the religious beliefs that either the earth had been created in seven days, and then was altered by a Noachian flood—to use that rather ugly word—but essentially Noah's flood, or that the world had come out of a series of volcanoes. These are the two opposing views of neptunism and plutonism. Either way, the idea was that fossils had been placed, as I mentioned in the book, by the vis plastica, the divine force that had inserted fossils into the earth as a manifestation of God's omnipotence and majesty. Things that we today would think of as completely wacko were central to this rather primitive science. It wasn't until a man called James Hutton came along in the middle of the eighteenth century and said, "Wait a minute, the processes that we see happening today—the erosion being caused by rocks chipping against each other as they fall down a mountainside or animals dying and being buried by sand—these processes have been going on for eons." If you can accept that the earth is older than 4000 or 5000 years old—which is a churchly belief—if you can accept that these ordinary processes that we see around us have been going on for millions and millions, if not billions, of years, then maybe that is what geology is all about. Maybe there's a rational side to the science. At first the Church dismissed Hutton, but it was into this atmosphere that Smith was born, when things were beginning to change.

When Smith published his map, was that still the view of the Church or had it changed?

It hadn't changed at all, and I might say parenthetically that there are something like a hundred million people in this country today who still cling—not necessarily desperately, you've only got to watch certain television channels—cling with great enthusiasm to the idea that the earth is young, that fossils are artifices and that mankind descended from Adam and Eve. The Church hadn't given it up in 1815, and a significant number of people haven't given it up today.

Did Smith face any sort of criticism from the Church for his blasphemous publication?

Oddly enough, no. He didn't because the atmosphere was beginning to change in the circles in which his map was discussed. But remember that, in a way, going to debtor's prison, being made to live as a homeless man for a decade, being completely excluded from the chattering classes of London, were ways of being shunned. The Church did not turn its back on him, but it didn't need to. I dare say if he had published his map in 1815 and been lionized in London society, there would have been churchmen who would have said that this kind of thing is not on, and this man must be blackballed or argued with. Because he disappeared, the Church didn't have to bother shunning him.

You dedicated The Map That Changed the World to Harold Redding, your tutor at Oxford. How important was your university study in geology in researching this book?

Enormously important, I think, though I was not a practicing geologist but for one year after leaving Oxford. I went to Uganda and worked looking for copper and then, for a variety of reasons, got into journalism and essentially had nothing to do with geology for years and years and years. Except occasionally I would write pieces that touched on geology. I was in the Far East for a long time, where we had a lot of volcanoes and the occasional earthquake, and in those stories I remember my news editor saying, "Gosh, Simon, you seem to know a reasonable amount about this ... Wait a minute, weren't you a geologist?" So once in a while the geological background was helpful, but I hadn't ever thought of actually doing a book about geology. One day while I was looking for a character who might be as historically interesting as W. C. Minor had been to me in that book about the Oxford English Dictionary, I suddenly thought, I remember Harold Redding telling me about William Smith. I rang him up—delighted, of course, to find that he was still alive, an elderly man still working at Oxford—and said, "Harold, do you remember me after all these years?" (It's been thirty-five), and he said he did.

I said, "I'm vaguely thinking of writing a book about William Smith." There was this wonderful pause, and he said, "I would be so delighted if you did, because nobody has. I always thought of him as a great hero, and to have you writing his story would be the greatest of delights."

Throughout this book and your other books that I've read you give rich narrative detail that almost makes it seem as if you were there. I'll give an example:

"On April 18, 1814, Smith was interested indeed when he passed Cary's shop in the Strand, and saw that in the bow windows of the store were four of his sheets completely finished, and fully coloured. Cary had chosen to surprise and delight the forty-five-year-old mapmaker—he had placed the finished sheets ... in the window without telling anyone. Smith, who became as excited as a schoolboy, snatched up the sheets and immediately—his first reaction, and a noble one—took them over to Somerset House to show Sir Joseph Banks."

Was it difficult finding the kind of detail necessary to write scenes like this in a story whose events occurred two centuries ago?

Curiously, that particular event of Smith's being surprised by seeing the first four sheets of the map is recorded in three places: Smith's own diaries, John Cary's logs, and [Smiths' nephew John] Phillips's biography of his uncle. It would have been a more difficult task if you had chosen another passage of the book where maybe there was less factual evidence. That was a relatively easy one to pin down. Easy, and, of course, delightful when you find this kind of thing. It really, really does make history come alive. You can imagine—you can almost taste the excitement that Smith was enjoying at that moment.

Were there any areas of Smith's life, such as his marriage, which you referred to a couple of times, that you wish you could have had more information on?

Yes. Smith himself was a pretty bad diarist, and Phillips, I think, bowdlerized—he took away a lot of material that he didn't think succeeding generations ought to read. Now, I would have loved Smith to have kept a diary in prison, for instance. I'd like to know exactly what he was feeling when he took the stagecoach up the road that August night to Yorkshire to begin a self-imposed exile. I would have loved to have found out more about his wife, about her as a widow. I'd like to find out what happened to the Wollaston medal that was given to him by the Geological Society, which I've never managed to track down. Most extraordinarily—and of course this is the kind of thing that happens when you research a book—I could never find a living relative of Smith's. But blow me down, I was giving a talk in Oxford four weeks ago, and an old man who was having his book signed said, "Oh, by the way, my name is John Taylor, and I am, as far as I know, the only living lineal relative of William Smith." I said, "Why weren't you there when I was researching the book!" So research is a terribly imperfect science, and you learn an awful lot more after you've published a book, because people keep writing to you and saying, "Oh, gosh, I was related to such and such a character and I have a letter in my possession." So it's a never-ending process, and once you have actually finished the book and sent it off to the publishers to be printed, you wait with an enormous amount of anticipation and a slight amount of trepidation to hear what untold parts of the story you've missed.

The Professor and the Madman raised public awareness and appreciation of not only the men involved in the creation of the OED but also the dictionary itself and lexicography as a field. Do you think The Map That Changed the World can have a similar effect on public appreciation of Smith's map and the field of geology?

Well, you know better than I that geology in this country is a bit like fruitcake. It's one of those things that people affect not to like at all. I now feel keenly—I would say almost passionately—devoted to it. I think it's a wonderful and fascinating science, and it literally underlies everything. That's not meant to be a pun; it's crucially important. I think it's also very romantic and filled with romantic figures. So in the same way that lexicography did seem dry as dust until I started researching it and now a lot of people have come to believe that dictionaries and lexicons are fascinating, yes, I do think—at least I hope—that people will become as intrigued by geology as I have been.

Did your love of language develop as you researched both The Professor and the Madman and "Word Imperfect" (on Roget and his thesaurus, in the May, 2001, Atlantic)? Has your perception of your own writing changed as a result of that?

I should say, first of all, that I think it was my father that really turned me on to language. We were tremendously and competitively keen on doing crosswords when I was a little boy. English crosswords, as you may well be aware, are very different from American ones. They're not synonymous—they're sort of cryptic clues. So he was always very interested in words and the sound of words and in having a bigger vocabulary than I did, and I would compete with him. To fast forward to what you're asking, yes, I think my own appreciation of the language has increased hugely since writing those pieces. Now I do look at everything I write much more critically to decide whether I really am using with great precision what I think is the right word. I'm often wrong, but it gives me a greater sensitivity, that's for sure. I should say that at the moment I'm reading Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh, and I think that Evelyn Waugh is the master of the absolutely exact use of words. I think he is a great, great man, and few writers can match the exactitude of his linguistic choice.

Before writing The Professor and the Madman you worked primarily as a travel writer. The Map That Changed the World seems to have elements of both travel and historical writing. Are you going to try to continue writing books that fit into both these genres?

I'm actually leaving on Sunday to go off to West Java, because I'm beginning work on a book about Krakatoa. Not so much on the volcano itself—because I think volcano books have a certain similarity to them—but on the fact that this was the first great catastrophe after the invention of the submarine telegraph cable and the world knew about it very quickly. So here is a subject that involves a lot of historical research, because the eruption was in August, 1883, and takes me to exotic, distant places. The Krakatoa book and the book I'm vaguely planning after it will both take me around the world and back in time. Being able to travel in geography and history simultaneously seems to me a pretty ideal way of writing books.

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

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Jordi Weinstock is the Web editor at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recent graduate of Duke University. This summer he was an intern in the new media department of The Atlantic Monthly.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.