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 one of my
well-thumbed editions of the Encyclopaedia
Britannica. My 1970 edition has thirty
thousand large, idea-dense pages, and they address
almost anything I want to know about. I often start
out with a specialized sourcebook and then find
even richer information in the Britannica.
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 our species to try to do it
The earliest encyclopaedia we can trace was written
by Plato's nephew Speusippus in the fourth century
BC. For two millennia encyclopaedia writers have
tried every scheme 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. One fifteenth-century Chinese
encyclopaedia ran to thirty thousand chapters.
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 Industrial Revolution. He boldly emphasized
current technology as well as well as the classics.
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 initially entitled
Encyclopaedia Britannica: or a Dictionary of
the Arts and Sciences. It first came out in
1768 as a modest three-volume set, written by three
Scots: Andrew Bell, Colin McFarguhar, and William
Smellie. Their subtitle, Arts and Sciences, by the
way, was the same one Chambers had used.
Diderot's work was a magnificent gesture, but today
it's only a beautiful relic. The
Britannica, on the other hand, grew
through fifteen 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, my battered 1897 edition was a
prominent member of our family. It was a kind of
philosopher's stone for turning ignorance into
gold. A lengthy article, written well before the
Wright brothers flew, laid out the major issues of
flight with uncanny accuracy. And today, one of my
richest sources of historical information is a
treasured copy of the 1911 edition.
Modern encyclopaedias are the legacy of the
Industrial Revolution. They embody the startling
news of the eighteenth century -- that you and I
can know what kings and emperors know, and that our
heads and hands work together to 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
For more information go (where else!) to the
This is a revised version of Episode 203.