The impoverished British surveyor who created the world's first geologic map in 1815 went to debtor's prison and might have been forgotten today if it weren't for Simon Winchester.
Author of the best -seller "The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology," Winchester enthralled 170 people Wednesday evening during a fund-raising dinner in the lobby of Buffalo & Erie County Central Library on Lafayette Square.
Winchester -- who has homes in Manhattan, the Berkshires and Scotland -- waived his usual $20,000 fee for the Library Foundation of Buffalo & Erie County. His appearance launches a series of exhibitions that will showcase the library's Rare Book Collection.
Most notable of those treasures is one of the 6-by-9-foot maps hand-drawn and colored by Smith, whose work was a catalyst for the emergence of modern geologic study.
"Born in 1769 near Oxford, William Smith played with fossils in the fields as a child," Winchester said. "He became chief surveyor for a coal company. In his work, he noticed that certain rocks had certain fossils and they always appeared in the same order, rising and falling under the landscape. He realized that he could draw a map of the hidden underside of Britain."
For the next 15 years, Smith crisscrossed Britain on foot, on horseback and stagecoach, talking to farmers and noting the locations of oil and coal reserves. When it was finished, he sold copies of his map for 7 pounds, 7 shillings. But the map was plagiarized and widely sold at a cheaper price, and Smith was forced into bankruptcy and sent to debtor's prison.
After his release, Smith left London and supported himself as an itinerant surveyor. One day in 1830, he was hired by Sir John Johnstone to survey his Yorkshire estate.
Recognizing Smith's style of map drawing, Johnstone informed him: "Your map has transformed geology all over the world." Johnstone took Smith to London, where he was made an honorary fellow of the British Geologic Society and was given a pension by the king and an honorary professorship.
And now Johnstone's descendants are restoring a building in Yorkshire as a museum recognizing Smith and his extraordinary map.
Winchester spoke today about his forthcoming book, "The Crack at the Edge of the World," about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. His first best seller was "The Professor and the Madman," about the development of the Oxford English Dictionary.