A tale of two encyclopaedias: transitions in the presentation of scientific knowledge

John Issitt

The Open University

The first decades of the nineteenth century witnessed a boom in the production of encyclopaedic dictionaries. Two examples of this are The Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1807) ascribed to George Gregory DD and published by Richard Phillips, and The British Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1809) ascribed to William Nicholson and published by a huge conger whose principle organisers were Longmans. The circumstances of production of these two works are intriguing as whilst sources reveal that the texts were 'bitter rivals' and 'framed in opposition' to one another, they also reveal that neither Gregory nor Nicholson compiled the works given their names. The same sources also show that the works were actually compiled, edited and significantly written over the amazingly short period of 30 months by the same man - the dissenting scholar the Reverend Jeremiah Joyce (1763 -1816) famous for his involvement as one of the accused in the treason trials of 1794. Analysis of the texts themselves also reveals interesting transitions in the presentational style, in the organisation and in the cultural values associated with the knowledge the texts contain. As the works were publishing speculations produced in consecutive years by the same editor, and as they belong to the same genre of reference books yet had a public and mutually adversarial marketing strategy, their points of contrast reflect changes in the processes of book production and marketing and therefore provide a unique and tightly focused example of a transition in the construction and presentation of scientific knowledge to new reading audiences.

The links between publishing and marketing considerations and the texture of the knowledge the texts contain, show a interesting set of elements. One such element is the economic imperative which demands minimum production costs. Comparison of the two texts shows that approximately fifty percent of the text is exactly the same in both works and that Joyce formulated one, Nicholson's Encyclopedia, from the manuscript of the other, Gregory's Dictionary. For the major sponsors of the Nicholson project Longmans - Joyce would have been a very attractive option. Not only did he have considerable editorial experience and a substantial network of contributory authors, but most importantly he came armed with a lot of readily available text. The project could therefore be sold to the large conger that invested in the work with a lot of text immediately available from Joyce and with the promise of a speedy return on investment.

Another important element is the development of Joyce's literary prowess and editorial authority. For instance, given the task of trying to explain the extent and arrangement of the known universe, Joyce tries to generate an understanding of the spatial relationships of heavenly bodies by using a device which shifts the earth centred spatial perspective and tries to construct an eye positioned on the moon. In both texts there is a reference to 'Lunarians' - people who might live on the moon. In both cases a subclause of the form 'if they exist' qualifies the claim and signals Lunarians as a projection created for explanatory purposes. The following sentence appears in both texts:

The earth must perform the same office to the moon that the moon does to us; and it will appear to the inhabitants of the moon (if there be any), like a very magnificent moon being to them about 13 times as big as the moon to us......

But the theme of extra-terrestrials and plural worlds is further developed in Nicholson's Encyclopedia in a wonderful image of the universe:

Reasoning analogically from the circumstances with which we are aquainted, we may deduce, that the universe consists of nebulae or distinct systems of stars: that each nebula is composed of a prodigious number of suns or bodies that shine by their own native splendour; and that each individual sun is destined to give light to numbers of worlds that revolve about it. What an august, what an amazing conception does this give of the works of the creator! Instead of one world and one sun, we find thousands and thousands of suns ranged around us at immense distances, all attended by innumerable worlds, all in rapid motion, yet calm, regular and harmonious, invariably keeping the paths prescribed them; and these worlds peopled with myriads of intelligent beings formed for endless progression in perfection and felicity.

Joyce's authorial voice clearly changes as he edits his previous work. His prose gets stronger and he is able to integrate his Unitarian perspective with greater confidence and literary flourish. However, whilst there is a growing emphasis on clarity of terms and concepts, there is a new positioning of the cultural status of science. Joyce begins to position the reader as 'witness to' the facts as produced by a growing number of authoritative sources. Such a re-positioning of writer and reader can be considered as part of the re-formulation of the intellectual space between the producers, and the consumers, of scientific knowledge. The transition is from an assumption of the reader as gentleman amateur, to an assumption of the reader as consumer of facts.

Yet another element is the changing use of illustrations which figure as selling points in both works. In both there are many full sheet plates of engravings relating to the letter of the alphabet under which they fall and which serve as colourful and interesting visual relief from the monotony of text. The greater number of such plates are concerned with, Natural History. However, in Gregory's Dictionary the plates are entitled Natural History and contain engravings from species falling under that letter independent of any taxonomic classification. Thus a bird, an insect and a snake will appear on the same plate. By contrast, in Nicholson's Encyclopedia such pages of plates are divided into mammalia, serpentes, pisces, entomology, aves, amphibia and so on. Thus, for example, a sheet of engravings will be devoted only to mammalia whose latin name begins with a particular letter. Such a change represents a different use of illustration. In Gregory's Dictionary they are used as novel, interesting and colourful breaks in text that reflect and address the interest in Natural History. In Nicholson's Encyclopedia they are deliberately and precisely integrated into the text in line with taxonomic and alphabetical categories. The different forms of illustration reveal different sets of epistemological assumptions about how knowledge should be presented and interacted with. The shift is from an episteme which facilitates and assumes wonderment at a collection or cabinet of natural history (Gregory's Dictionary), to an episteme that designates what is displayed with a specific category (Nicholson's Encyclopedia).

The lineage of Encyclopaedic Dictionaries shows a development through an alphabetically arranged but systematic treatment of topics, of which Chamber's 1728 Cyclopedia, Or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences and Diderot's mid eighteenth century L'Encyclopedie, are the most famous examples, to nineteenth century reference works in which connected sub-topics were classified more strictly under their alphabetical listing and assigned to different physical locations within the works. This was a transition from 'thematic lexicography' to 'alphabetic lexicography' and Gregory's Dictionary and Nicholson's Encyclopedia neatly express a small step in the general evolution of this genre. Gregory's Dictionary is weighted towards thematic compilation and the impulse to circumscribe and contain arenas of knowledge whereas Nicholson's Encyclopedia is structured on more exclusively alphabetic lines and the conveniences of an invariant series.

In Gregory's Dictionary science is presented as novel with its workings accessible to the educated reader and dressed in the elaborate trappings of eighteenth century polite culture. In Nicholson's Encyclopedia science is presented with an emphasis on easy access to knowledge which is constructed as a consumer product. Because so much of the same material is used in both texts, Joyce's editorial pen, forced to develop something new for new audiences from something that appealed to an older set of values, forms, in embryo, a new expression and status for scientific knowledge for 'popular' consumption. In the first decade of the nineteenth century the transitions revealed in these two speculative publications express, in micro, a social and epistemological transition that is more vivid over a longer time period. From appealing to the gentleman-amateur of the eighteenth century, science becomes packaged and produced by a developing publishing industry that mediates emergent scientific professionalism and the growing number of new consumers.

Table of Contents - Joint Meeting between the Textbook Colloquium and The British Society for the History of Science held on January 10th 1998 at Leeds University.


© 1998