Today, we talk about revolutions and encyclopedias.
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.
Encyclopedias date back to
2nd-century Rome. But Ephraim Chambers's English
encyclopedia broke new ground in 1728. Its title,
typical of the time, sounds more like a table of
Cyclopaedia; or a Universal Dictionary of Arts
and Sciences, Containing an Explication of the
Terms ... in the Several Arts, both Liberal and
Mechanical ... etc., etc. ...
The new idea here is mechanical arts. Earlier
encylopedias were never that down-to-earth.
The French arranged to publish Chambers's
encyclopedia in 1745. But, after a fight with the
English translator, they decided to develop a
greatly expanded French version instead. By 1747,
Denis Diderot had assumed leadership of the project
-- except for mathematical parts, which were
handled by the mathematician d'Alembert.
Diderot added real fire to the project. He was
briefly jailed in 1749 for his liberal views, and
when the first two volumes were published in 1751,
he was attacked by Jesuit authorities.
The problem was that Diderot and the other writers
were rationalists. The work was now titled
Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of
Science, Arts, and the Trades, and it was on
its way to becoming a 28-volume treatise on human
affairs. The Dictionnaire, as it was
called, laid bare the workings of the known world
in a way no one had ever tried to do. It boldly
told the average man that he could know what only
kings, emperors, and their lieutenants were
supposed to know. It suggested that anyone should
have access to rational truth. In that sense it was
a profoundly revolutionary document.
And the French government didn't miss the point.
They twice tried to suppress the
Dictionnaire. Yet the work was
completed in 1771. That was little more than a
decade ahead of the French Revolution, which it
helped to foment.
The Dictionnaire nurtured revolution
both by including the trades along with the arts
and sciences, and by recognizing the intimate link
between technology and culture. But oh, how
gracefully it did that job. Its beautiful plates
show, in wonderful detail, how tanning, printing,
metal-founding, and all the other production of the
period was done.
But the Dictionnaire was published on
the eve of the English industrial revolution as
well as the French revolution. The trades Diderot
described were just about to undergo a complete
transformation. The technical descriptions
ultimately served the history of technology better
than it served technology itself. The irony is that
it left us with a fine record of techniques that
had been perfected, with little real alteration,
since the Middle Ages.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds