Compiled upon a New Plan

This is a plate from my latest acquisition -- a facsimile of the first edition Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768-1771). I first became fascinated by early encyclopedias in the autumn of 2005. The professor of my "Genres of Enlightenment" course kindly permitted me to borrow his, and I found it absolutely enthralling, both materially and conceptually. I wrote about the durability of knowledge and the function of the encyclopedia with respect to that durability at the level of individual edition and genre (those of you interested in encyclopedias -- that poor genre too often overlooked by eighteenth-centuryists in favor of the novel and periodical -- should absolutely thumb through Richard Yeo's Encyclopaedic Visions).

The image to the left is that of a dial, described by William Smellie (the compiler of the first edition) thusly:
An universal dial, shewing the hours of the day by a terrestrial globe, and by the shadows of several gnomons, at the same time: together with all the places of the earth which are then enlightened by the sun; and those to which the sun is then rising, or on the meridian, or setting.
The description is followed by instructions on how to build one and how to use it. Naturally, I rather want one.

The plates throughout the edition are wonderful: there are astronomical charts explaining retrograde motion that look as though they were done by spirograph; intricate drawings of various machines and engines; charts of eighteenth-century shorthand symbols; examples of sheet music, bookkeeping records, anatomical sketches. It is not difficult to imagine myself actually reading the whole thing cover-to-cover. What is difficult to imagine is why the people at Britannica decided to reproduce the thing and offer it for sale. It can be purchased directly from their website for $195. They say it "lends an unmistakable air of prestige to any home or office." That rather smacks of buying books by the yard, I think, and I don't imagine anyone who has $200 lying around would purchase the thing for the prestige of it (for the record, I received it as a gift, but if I hadn't I absolutely would have bought it eventually).

I shall be consulting the three volumes of the edition severally over the course of my dissertation. Indeed, the temptation to use the thing as an encyclopedia of the eighteenth century is nearly overwhelming. Will I go to Locke when I need Locke, or will I go to Smellie's entry on Metaphysics -- which he lifted from Locke wholesale? What epistemological traps do I risking falling into? Are they the same as those fallen into by the original users?

At any rate -- anyone who wishes to know about any part of knowledge as it stood in the last quarter or so of the eighteenth century, please let me know. I'll look it up for you.

1 comment:

Marina said...

Does it say anything about Rousseau?
Just, y'know, out of interest.