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No. 203:
Encyclopaedia Britannica

Today, a new look at an old encyclopaedia. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I don't write many episodes of this program without referring to a well-thumbed copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. thirty-thousand, idea-dense pages address almost anything I want to know about. I often start out with a specialized source-book and then find richer information in the Encyclopaedia.

Encyclopaedias are audacious books. They're cyclic in the sense that they try to close the circle of human knowledge. That can't be done, of course, but it's in the nature of the human race to try to do it anyway. The earliest encyclopaedia we can trace was written by Plato's nephew Speusippus in the 4th century BC. For two millennia encyclopaedia writers tried all kinds of schemes for ordering knowledge. The familiar alphabetic form, with a cross-referenced index, is fairly recent. Encyclopaedias vary in size. Some are only one volume long, and a 15th-century Chinese encyclopaedia had 30,000 chapters in it.

The parent of our modern encyclopaedias was Chambers' Cyclopaedia, published in England in 1728. Chambers introduced the first proper system of cross-referencing; but even more important, he picked up and developed the new idea that encyclopaedias should go beyond conventional scholastic learning. Chambers was an early soldier in the brewing Industrial Revolution, and he boldly emphasized current technology as well.

Chambers' Cyclopaedia gave rise to two larger works. Diderot's revolutionary French encyclopaedia of sciences, arts, and trades started out in 1747 as a translation of Chambers.

The other offspring was the Encyclopaedia Britannica: or a Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences. It was first put out as a modest three-volume set in 1768 by three Scotsmen, Andrew Bell, Colin McFarguhar, and William Smellie. Their "Arts and Sciences" subtitle, by the way, was the same one Chambers had used.

Diderot's work was a magnificent gesture at the time, but today it's only a beautiful relic. The Britannica, on the other hand, grew through 15 major editions to a 32-volume set. It's the oldest surviving encyclopaedia and the largest in the English language.

When I was a child, a battered 9th edition was a prominent member of our family. It seemed to be a kind of philosopher's stone that could turn ignorance into gold. A lengthy article, written well before the Wright Brothers flew, laid out the major issues of flight with uncanny accuracy.

Our modern encyclopaedias are the legacy of the Industrial Revolution. They embody the startling news of the 18th century -- that you and I can know what kings and emperors know, and that our heads and our hands are what give our world its shape and form.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

This episode has been revised as Episode 1710.