If sets of cigarette cards can be said to be miniature encyclopaedias (see yesterday), then true encyclopaedias are another matter. The word comes from the Pseudo-Classical Greek phrase, έγκύκλιος παιδεία – enkyklios meaning ‘circular, general’ (think of ‘encircling’) and paideia meaning ‘education’ (from ‘pais’ ‘boy, child’, think of ‘paediatric’), the whole meaning ‘general knowledge’. When copyists met the phrase in the Latin texts of Quintilian, Pliny and Galen they took it to be one word and by the 16th century the noun was being used in the titles of books, (Rabelais uses the word in his Pantagruel of 1532 (Book Two, chapter XX – ‘… he hath to me discovered the very true well, fountain, and abyss of the encyclopaedia of learning’).
|Pliny Natural History Title Page|
Pliny (the Elder), is generally credited with the first encyclopaedia with his 37 volume Naturalis Historia (Natural History) of 77 CE, which included twenty thousand extracts from two thousand works by more than four hundred authors of his own and previous ages, (Pliny, as I’ve mentioned before, really deserves a posting of his own). The first ‘real’ encyclopaedia in English was the Lexicon Technicum of 1704 by John Harris, which introduced the convention of arranging the entries in alphabetical order. Although it claimed to have universal scope, it was limited to mainly the physical sciences and mathematical subjects, (Isaac Newton contributed his only published work on chemistry to the 1710 edition).
|Chambers Cyclopaedia Title Page|
The success of Harris’s work encouraged Ephraim Chambers to publish his two-volume Cyclopaedia (1728), which correlated the entries by an elaborate system of cross-references, for which innovation Chambers has earned the sobriquet ‘The Father of the Modern Encyclopaedia’. In about 1745, a French publisher Le Breton sought to issue a French translation of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, but the project quickly changed from a mere translation to an original work in its own right. Overseen by Jean d’Alembert and Denis Diderot, the Encyclopédie contained entries by many of the Philosophes, including Voltaire, and was dogged by controversy from the outset. King Louis XV forbade publication in 1752 after complaints by Jesuit clergy, although the Director of Publications, Lamoignon de Malesherbes, (and the King’s mistress, Mme de Pompadour) encouraged them to disregard the ban. D’Alembert’s article on ‘Geneva’ upset the Calvinist pastors there, who sought a Europe-wide ban, and in 1757, Louis XV banned it again, following an assassination attempt by Robert-François Damiens, who was said to have been unbalanced by his exposure to liberal opinions. The 17 volume Encyclopédie was completed in 1772 (expanding eventually to 28 volumes, with supplements and books of plates), yielding an estimated profit of two million livres for the publishers, and by 1789 it is estimated that 25,000 copies, in various editions, had been produced.
|Encyclopédie Title Page|
Encouraged by the controversy and the agitation caused by the Encyclopédie, three Scots from Edinburgh (the Enlightenment ‘Athens of the North’), planned their own version. Andrew Bell, Colin MacFarquhar and William Smellie published their work periodically over three years, starting in December 1768, with bound volumes costing £12 per set. They called it the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
|Encyclopaedia Britannica Title Page|
A second edition followed from 1777, with Smellie replaced by James Tytler as editor, which ran to ten volumes, and a third edition was planned. A fourth edition followed in 1810, this time twenty-volumes composed of 16,033 pages and 581 engravings, selling at £36 per set, with about 4,000 sets sold. As further editions followed, the Encyclopaedia Britannica gained a reputation for literary and scholarly excellence, the 11th edition (1911) is particularly noted for its erudition. From the 1911 edition, under American supervision, the articles became shorter and more suited to general readership. In 1933, the Encyclopaedia adopted ‘continuous revision’, with updates done to a schedule. In March 2012, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. announced that the print edition was to end, as they concentrated on the on-line version. The final print edition (2010) has 32 volumes.
This is my set of the 1948 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, with all 24 volumes. I bought this for the unbelievable sum of £5 (yes, five pounds – for the complete set!) earlier this year, although I had to go to Ilkley to pick them up (only in England would I feel the need to mention this – it’s less than forty miles away).