The History of Encyclopedias

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Podcast Transcript

Ever since humans began writing down information, there has been a desire to compile all known knowledge into one single source. 

For over two thousand years, people have been trying to amass all the knowledge of their era and civilization. 

Some of these attempts were little more than lists, and others were mind-bogglingly comprehensive. 

Learn more about the history of encyclopedias and the attempts to compile human knowledge on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In the internet age, it might seem like encyclopedias are a thing of the past, and in a certain respect, they are. But, as we will see, the ideas behind encyclopedias are as alive today as ever. 

Before I get into the history of encyclopedias, I should first explain what an encyclopedia is and where the word came from. 

An encyclopedia is a comprehensive reference work that contains information on a wide range of subjects or on numerous aspects of a particular field, such as art, medicine, or law. It is typically organized alphabetically or thematically and is designed to provide concise and authoritative knowledge to its readers. 

The word encyclopedia comes from the Greek words enkýklios paideia. 

The word enkýklios can mean “circular,” “general,” or “comprehensive.”

Paideia refers to education or, more generally, the entire process of educating someone. 

At first, the term encyclopedia didn’t refer to a document or a set of documents. It referred to a well-rounded education. 

The first attempts at trying to compile information occurred soon after the advent of writing. These early attempts weren’t encyclopedias as we would think of them today. They were often nothing more than lists of practical knowledge.

The Babylonian Urra=hubullu was a collection of 24 clay tablets, which is known as a lexical list.

Lexical lists were a type of cuneiform document used in ancient Mesopotamia for educational purposes. They were essentially lists of words and phrases, organized thematically or by some other system, and were used to teach scribes various aspects of the cuneiform writing system and the Sumerian and Akkadian languages.

Ancient Egyptian papyrus have been discovered that were compilations of knowledge in certain disciplines. The Ebers Papyrus is a compilation of Egyptian medical knowledge. The Rhind Papyrus is a compilation of mathematical knowledge, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead is a collection of religious knowledge. 

However, these ancient examples are not attempts at universal knowledge, only knowledge within a given field. 

One of the earliest known attempts at compiling universal knowledge was the work Nine Books of Disciplines by the Roman Scholar Marcus Terentius Varro. The work hasn’t survived to the modern era, but it did serve as a basis for future encyclopedists.

The first attempt that we know of to compile knowledge across a range of disciplines was created by the Roman Pliny the Elder. He wrote a work titled “Naturalis Historia,” or Natural History. 

Naturalis Historia is the largest surviving work we have from the Roman Empire. Written in the first century, around the year 78, it consists of 37 books, each dealing with a different subject. The topics of the books include astronomy, mathematics, geography, anthropology, human physiology, zoology, botany, agriculture, mining, mineralogy, sculpture, and art.

Naturalis Historia became one of the most important documents in the ancient world and later saw a revival in popularity during the Renaissance. It is one of the best documents we have to know about life during the Roman Empire.

There weren’t a lot of attempts at creating a universal collection of knowledge in the centuries that followed. Still, there were several attempts to create a universal compendium of knowledge following the rise of Christianity. 

In the 7th century, Isadore of Seville created a work known in Latin as the Etymologiae, often referred to in English as the Origins. It was based on Naturalis Historia and other works and had 448 chapters over 20 volumes.

Around the year 830, a monk by the name of Rabanus Maurus compiled an extensive work known as De universo, which was based on Isadore’s previous work.

You’ll notice a trend that each encyclopedic work was based heavily on the works that came before it.

The most widely read encyclopedia in the Middle Ages in Europe was probably De proprietatibus rerum, or On the Properties of Things. It was written by Bartholomeus Anglicus, a French monk, in 1240. 

Another French monk, Vincent of Beauvais, published an extremely ambitious work in 1260. Known as Speculum Majus, or the Great Mirror. He worked on it for 29 years, and it is divided into three parts: the Mirror of Nature, the Mirror of Doctrine, and the Mirror of History.  The total length of the work was over 3 million words. To put that into perspective, the total number of words I’ve written for the scripts for this podcast in three and a half years is probably only around 2 million words. 

The Speculum Majus was translated into several languages and was the basis for several other encyclopedias 

Europe was not the only place that was developing universal encyclopedias of knowledge.

Muslim scholars created their own compendiums of knowledge. In the year 960, a secret society of Islamic philosophers in Basra, located in modern Iraq, published the Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity.

The physician Ibn Sina published The Canon of Medicine in the early 11th century, and it was used as a medical encyclopedia for centuries. 

There were many Islamic scholars, such as al-Tabari, ibn Rustah, al-Athir, and Ibn Khaldun, who set exemplary examples for research, scholarship, and diligence. 

Over in India, the Siribhoovalaya was an epic work by a Jainist monk named Ku-mu-dendu Muni that was written in the 9th century. It consists of over 600,000 verses, was written in code, and covers topics including mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, medicine, and history.

However, maybe the greatest encyclopedias of the pre-modern era came out of China. 

What China had going for it was a highly organized system of scholars known as Mandarins. If you remember, back to my episode on the subject, Mandarins had to pass an extremely rigorous exam to get admitted.

During the Song Dynasty in the 11th century, the Four Great Books of Song were published. This was an enormous undertaking that was the combined effort of thousands of scholars. If you notice, most of the non-Chinese encyclopedias I’ve mentioned were written by either a single individual or a small group of people. 

The Four Great Books of Song consisted of 9.4 million Chinese characters in 1000 written volumes. 

However, this was dwarfed by the Yongle Encyclopedia, which was compiled by under the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty in 1408. The entire work consisted of 22,937 chapters in 11,095 volumes. 

It was the largest encyclopedia in the world until the creation of Wikipedia. Today, fewer than 400 volumes of the original 11,095 exist. Most of the volumes were lost during the Opium War, which I covered in another episode and the Boxer Rebellion.

All of these encyclopedias had one thing in common. Very few copies were made, and they were only available to a small number of people. 

Even the spread of the printing press didn’t result in the widescale distribution of encyclopedias. There were too many volumes that had to be published, and that couldn’t be done affordably. 

The publications of encyclopedias designed for general use didn’t occur until the 18th century. 

The first encyclopedia created for general consumption was the Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, which was published in 1728 by the British encyclopedist Ephraim Chambers. This is widely considered to be the first modern encyclopedia. It was in alphabetical order, had multiple contributors, and consisted of two volumes.

This was followed by the Encyclopédie in France in 1751, which was largely inspired by Chambers’s encyclopedia. 

One of the most popular encyclopedias for almost 250 years was the Encyclopædia Britannica, which was first published in 1768. It was a response to the French Encyclopédie. The first edition was released in weekly installments as pamphlets through 1771, and it had just three volumes. 

Approximately 3,000 sets were sold at a price of 12 pounds sterling each, which was a lot of money back in 1771.  Adjusted for inflation, it would be £20,000 pounds today.

The 19th century was a golden era for encyclopedias. Multiple publishing companies produced encyclopedias. Encyclopedias grew in size, increasing their number of volumes as well as increasing the number of illustrations.

In addition to growing in size, they also dropped in price, making them more affordable to a wider audience. 

The Penny Cyclopaedia was a 27-volume encyclopedia that was sold in weekly installments of one penny from 1833 to 1843.

Likewise, Chambers’s Encyclopaedia was sold over a ten-year period from 1859 to 1868 in 520 installments. Each installment cost three half-pence, and the total size of the end product was 8,320 pages, with over 27,000 articles from over 100 authors.

The 19th century also saw the spread of encyclopedias into more languages beyond French, English, and German. 

In the 20th century, costs continued to drop, but encyclopedias still weren’t something that every family had. The business model for many encyclopedias changed from issues being published in installments to payments being made in installments. 

In the 1950s and 60s, new encyclopedias came into existence, like the World Book Encyclopedia, which door-to-door salesmen sold. 90% of encyclopedia sales in the United States in the 60s were sold door-to-door.

Encyclopedias were sold as an aspirational item—a way for a family to improve their lot by having an educational resource in their home. 

There was, of course, a problem. Encyclopedias couldn’t easily be updated and didn’t reflect changes in world affairs and advancements in science and technology.  Most major encyclopedias would issue annual updates, but at the end of the day, every year, your encyclopedia set becomes more and more out of date. 

Computers radically changed everything. You could publish an enormous amount of digital content with full-color images, sound, and video. 

The first major digital encyclopedia was Microsoft’s Encarta, which was released on CD-ROM in 1993. I actually purchased the original Encarta back then, and I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. 

While CD-ROM could distribute data cheaply and efficiently, you still couldn’t update it. 

With the advent of the Internet, it became possible to have an encyclopedia that could be accessed by everyone in the world and could be updated instantly. 

Grolier’s Encyclopedia had a version that was available on Compuserve in 1993

Several encyclopedia companies created online versions of their product, but it was much more difficult to monetize compared to selling print volumes.

Older editions of encyclopedias, like the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1911, were in the public domain and were placed online. 

However, in the early days of the Internet, people on Usenet set out to create a free online encyclopedia called Interpedia. It was an encyclopedia that anyone could contribute to and read. 

Interpedia never took off, as did subsequent online encyclopedias such as Nupedia. 

The online encyclopedia that finally caught on was Wikipedia. The English language version of Wikipedia was launched in 2001. The word Wikipedia is a combination of the Hawaiian word ‘wiki,’ which means quick, and the Greek, Paideia.

Wikipedia took a while to gain momentum, but by 2004, it had become the largest published encyclopedia in the world, with 300,000 articles. 

In 2007, it surpassed 2,000,000 articles, making it the largest encyclopedia in history, passing the Chinese Yongle Encyclopedia. 

As of the time I am recording this, there are 6,758,548 articles on the English language version of Wikipedia. 

Internet encyclopedias have devastated the print encyclopedia market. The Encyclopedia Britannica ceased printing in 2012 after 244 years. 

Currently, the only English encyclopedia still in print is the World Book Encyclopedia, which, as you can guess, doesn’t sell nearly as many copies as it once did. Most sales today are to libraries, but there are still a small number of people who buy them for their homes. The 2023 edition costs $1,199. 

From ancient Babylonian lexical lists to modern websites like Wikipedia, encyclopedias reflect humanity’s enduring quest for knowledge and understanding. 

Many eras and cultures have created their own compilations of human knowledge. This tradition has been passed down to us today, making encyclopedias a testament to the collective intellectual journey of humanity.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today’s review comes from listener Jacobfloyd43 over on Spotify. They write:

After listening to this episode, I’m thrilled to announce my membership in the Arkansas Completionist Club. Thank you for more than six months of amazing podcasts for me to listen to while I am at work.

Thanks, Jacob! I’m glad I’ve been able to keep you company at work. One more step towards establishing a chapter of the completionist club in all 50 states.  

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.