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