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On the Evolution of the World’s Oldest Encyclopedia

Literary Hub: “Encyclopedias are not like rose bushes, for which pruning is everything. They are usually the opposite, more like Japanese knotweed, spreading wildly and germinating freely, invasive and persistent in all countries where a foothold is possible.When the second edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica completed its publication in 1784, sixteen years after the first, it had greatly increased its scope and cost, and had grown from three volumes to ten. It was issued in 181 installments, usually weekly, between 1777 and 1784, a total of 8595 pages (although some of the pagination was erratic: page 7099 was followed immediately by page 8000). The cost per issue had risen from 6 pence to 1 shilling, while the cost of the total set a year after completion was 12 pounds, more than four times the first edition. To afford it all, a skilled London carpenter would have to save everything he earned (and go without food) for fifteen years. Its increase in size was due partly to the addition of biography, primarily of dead writers, artists and churchmen. The majority were Britons, with a heavy bias towards the Scots. Isaac Newton received one of the longest entries at almost three pages, while Pythagoras received a single column (he “made his scholars undergo a severe noviciate of silence for at least two years; and it is said that where he discerned too great an itch for talking, he extended it to five”)…Excerpted from All the Knowledge in the World: The Extraordinary History of the Encyclopedia by Simon Garfield. Copyright © 2023. Available from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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