Map-Making Tales From the Past
In Simon Winchester’s 2001 bestselling book, The Map That Changed the World, the true story is told of the world’s first geographical map and the man who created it. Such a mundane description however belies the fascinating tale that lies behind the man and his achievement. With a novelist’s touch, the author Simon Winchester details the man behind the achievement more than the achievement itself. That is where the real drama lies.
Smith was born in in 1769 at a time when the history of the world was thought by almost everyone to only be several thousand years old. That perception was changing among the educated however, and today the map is viewed as a giant step to a deeper understanding of the creation and formation of the earth. Much like Darwin’s, The Origin of Species, Smith’s great geological map of England shook people’s foundational understanding of the world in which they live. Smith’s discovery and his detailed maps changed people’s understanding of the age of the earth and how it was formed. But whereas Darwin received immediate praise and fame for his accomplishment, Smith became financially ruined, homeless, and for far too long, plagiarized by his colleagues.
The lion’s share of Winchester’s book details these unfortunate chain of events. The book becomes a human drama of persistence in the face of resistance, lies against him by his enemies, and his need to overcome one obstacle after another. Winchester, who was already a best-selling author, with The Professor and the Madman, brings out the human element expertly so anyone who does not have an interest in geographical map making will be held captive.
Our hero was born to a low-class family and his education was in surveying and canal digging for the transportation of goods. He held a natural curiosity for fossils and noticed different levels in the soil where fossils existed. All of this learning lead to his ground-breaking map of 1815 entitled “A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with Part of Scotland.” Sounds triumphant enough and it should have been except for some forgeries that surfaced and discredited his work. Fortunately for Smith his place and his accomplish was recognized before his death in 1839. Since then, his reputation and recognition for his important work has only grown.
This book is an excellent example of how powerful this genre of nonfiction writing can be. A well-told story no matter the subject can capture the reader and keep them turning the pages. Lieberman’s, The Molecule of More is another example, as is Jared Diamond’s, Guns, Germs, and Steel. They are educational as well as inspiring. There is no need to entertain the reader per se, but just inform the reader and let the story of the people and events unfold. That becomes entertaining enough. I would read anything Simon Winchester writes. Perhaps for his next project he could tell the story of all the great maps of the universe that the James Webb Telescope is going to produce. Write on, Winchester.
9 responses to “Map-Making Tales From the Past”
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I love the theme you pulled out of a man that rolled up his sleeves to grow and become successful.
I think our world is becoming increasingly unrealistic, hoping to make it with a flash in the pan. But how much does success come from hard work and dedication?
At the same time, we are seeing a great awakening among workers that realize they are killing themselves for jobs that do not value them with decent pay and benefits. It’s a shame that companies don’t take better care of their people, worrying more about their health and well-being than the bottom line.
The great Vince Lombardi said that the dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.
Thanks Andy: Yes indeed, hard work pays off differently with different people and different industries. One can get frustrated looking at this imperfect world though. I do my best and stay within God’s will…
Troy, I also could not help but see the theme of the “hero” throughout the book.
Is there anything in terms of the authors writing style that you enjoyed so much that could be incorporated into your NPO? Engaging + Educational? As you dive into church history, that might be a fun consideration… how can you “bring alive” these great lessons from history?
It was good writing, wasn’t it? He had a novelist’s touch and paced just right. When I come across writing that I like I try to better understand what I like about it and then emulate it. Not overly descriptive, keeping the narrative going, focus on the dramatic, important aspects of the drama…
Troy, thank you for your reflection on Smith’s life. I can hear your enthusiasm throughout your post.
As you focus on Smith’s hard work, I’m curious what insights you have on what fueled his perseverance through the challenges he faced?
Also, I’m curious what you make of the help he received at this lowest points, help that allowed him to regain his footing in his life and find some contentment in his later years?
What connecting points do you see with your own leadership journey–especially on the point of perseverance?
Smith was great wasn’t he? But he might not have been the best leader. He struck me as more of the solo-worker who is obsessed with his work that he doesn’t have too much time thinking about how to best motivate, encourage, strategically lead others. His mind is occupied with his subject matter, nothing else, you know?
I appreciate your overview of this book. I am curious what you were able to apply to your world? Were you able to relate to Smith’s struggle? How might you implement the lessons or discoveries to your leadership style?
For applications to my world, how about keep my head down and work hard doing what I think God has called me to do. Stay positive, focus on the job at hand!
Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm for this book. It seems it is right in your wheel house.
If you were to compare and contrast the ways Smith engaged his with Eve Poole’s argument for learning to lead what would those be?