From B.C to WWW: The History of the Encyclopaedia

By April 19, 2017Culture

What is the first thing that comes to our mind when we hear the word “Encyclopaedia”? – Large, heavy, hard bound books, in many volumes, containing information and pictures about almost every subject on the earth?

An encyclopaedia is a kind of reference work which consists of brief summaries of different branches of knowledge. The word ‘Encyclopaedia’ comes from the Greek words ‘enkyklios paideia’ which mean ‘general education.’ These two separate words were reduced to one word due to an error on the part of the copyists of Latin manuscripts. There have been two monumental encyclopaedias in history. The first was Naturalis Historia written by Pliny the Elder and the second was Encyclopédie, a French encyclopaedia by Denis Diderot. The third that we may consider as an important milestone in encyclopaedia history is Wikipedia.

The Encyclopaedia Timeline

116 BC-27 BC

Marcus Terentius Varro, an ancient Roman scholar and writer was the creator of the Nine Books of Disciplines. In the same, Varro focused on nine different disciplines: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, musical theory, medicine and architecture.

23 AD- 79 AD

Pliny the Elder, a Roman statesman and naturalist wrote Naturalis Historia; the earliest encyclopaedic work to have survived to modern times. This work, sometimes called the first encyclopaedia of natural science, consists of 37 books divided into 10 volumes covering topics like astronomy, mathematics, geography, ethnography, physiology, zoology, botany, agriculture, horticulture, painting, mining, sculpture, etc.

543 AD-560 AD

Institutiones divinarum and Saecularium litterarum were the first Christian encyclopaedia by Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman and writer.

550 AD-636 AD

Saint Isidore of Seville was a Spanish churchman and a great scholar of the Middle Ages. He is recognized as the author of Etymologiae or Origins, an encyclopaedia that aimed to document all the knowledge of his time.

520 AD-587 AD

Varahamihira, an Indian astronomer, mathematician and astrologer and one of the Nine Jewels of King Vikramaditya’s court in Ujjain, wrote the encyclopaedic Brihat Samhita. It covered a wide range of topics such as astrology, eclipses, rainfall, architecture, growth of crops, making of perfumes, gems, pearls and rituals.

830 AD

The most popular encyclopaedia of the Carolingian Age was De universe or De rerum naturis ( On the Universe or On the Natures of Things) by Rabanus Maurus, the archbishop of Mainz in Germany and a theologian. His encyclopaedia was based on Etymologiae.

9th century AD

The patriarch of Constantinople, Photius came up with the Bibliotheca or Myriobiblos (Ten Thousand Books) which consisted of 279 reviews of books that he had read.

10th century AD

A massive Byzantine encyclopaedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, the Suda or Souda was said to be written by an author called Suidas. It was written in Greek with around 30,000 entries.

11th century AD

Four Great Books of Song, was an enormous encyclopaedic work compiled in China during the time of the Song Dynasty.

12th, 13th century AD

There were many encyclopaedic works written during this time. Bartholomeus Anglicus was a scholar of Paris and wrote De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things) published in 1240.

The Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais wrote the Speculum majus (The Great Mirror) in 1260. The three parts that he wrote are titled ‘Nature’, ‘Doctrine’ and ‘History’.

Roger Bacon was an English scholar, philosopher and scientist. Three of his important works titled Opus majus, Opus minor and Opus tertium contributed greatly to encyclopaedic endeavours.

Based on the Speculum majus, Brunetto Latini, a contemporary of Bacon, wrote the first vernacular language encyclopaedia, Li livres dou tresor.

1408 AD

The Yongle Encyclopaedia was one of the largest encyclopaedias in history that was compiled during the rule of the Chinese emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty.

All these ancient works were hand-written and thus, rare and fragile. During the Renaissance period, the invention of printing allowed large-scale diffusion of works. Hence, 14th century onwards, most works were printed, rendering them largely available and possible to preserve.

1503 AD

German Carthusian humanist writer Gregor Reisch, was the author of the famous Margarita philosophica- an encyclopaedia of 12 books containing Latin grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy, physics, natural history, physiology, psychology and ethics.

1704 AD

London clergyman John Harris produced the Lexicon Technicum; emphasising mainly on mathematical subjects apart from arts and sciences.

1728AD

Cyclopaedia or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences was a 2 volume encyclopaedia produced by English writer and encyclopaedist Ephraim Chambers in London. This was the first general encyclopaedia in English. Its preface sheds light on its contents and structure.

1751AD- 1772 AD

André Le Breton, a bookseller and printer, approached Denis Diderot- French philosopher, art critic and writer, with a project to publish a translation of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia into French. Diderot accepted the proposal and transformed it; proposing another encyclopaedia that would give a complete account of all current knowledge. In the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopaedia or classified Dictionary of Sciences, Arts and Trades) Diderot compiled the writings of over one hundred French philosophers. The work consisted of 32 volumes with more than 70,000 articles on different subjects. The French Encyclopédie was one of the most important works of the Philosophes- men dedicated to the advancement of science and secular thought during the Age of Enlightenment. The Encyclopédie had profound social and political repurcussions in France just before the Revolution. Scholars like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau contributed to this work. According to Diderot, the aim of the Encyclopédie was “to change the way people think.”

Diderot was assisted on the Encyclopédie by Jean le Rond d’Alembert; a mathematician and a scientist. Contributors to the encyclopaedia were known as ‘Encyclopédistes’.

The Encyclopédie was one of the primary vehicles through which ideas of Enlightenment spread across the European continent. This work faced a lot of outrage and ban owing to its scientific and untraditional nature. The work was subject to censorship and the government ordered the suppression of several volumes.

1768AD- 1777 AD

The Encyclopaedia Britannica is the oldest English language general print encyclopaedia; first published in Ediburgh, Scotland. It is still in circulation but the 2010 edition was the last print edition and now the Encyclopaedia Britannica is only available in a digital version. The encyclopaedia is written by about 100 full-time editors with more than 4000 contributors, including 110 Nobel prize winners and 5 American presidents.

1796AD- 1808AD

Freidrich Brockhaus started the German language encyclopaedia Conversations-Lexikon in Leipzig. Today it is known as Brockhaus Encyclopaedia. The Lexikon included history, geography, biography, mythology, philosophy, natural history, etc.

1802AD- 1820AD

Abraham Rees, a scholar who had edited Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia edited the Rees’s Cyclopaedia or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences and Literature in the 19th century. The Rees’s Cyclopaedia consists of disciplines like atomic system, geological succession, earth origins, natural history and so on.

1866AD- 1876 AD

The Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle (Great Universal Dictionary of the 19th century) often called the Grand Larousse du dix-neuvième was a French encyclopaedic dictionary. It was planned, directed and to a large extent, written by Pierre Larousse, a French grammarian, lexicologist and encyclopaedist.

1908AD- 1964 AD

British writer, journalist and educator Arthur Mee came up with the Children’s Encyclopaedia that was published by the Educational Book Company, a subsidiary of Amalgamated Press, London. Grolier, an American publishing company, published it in the US in 1910 under the name ‘Book of Knowledge’.

1917AD

Based in Chicago, Illinois, the World Book is an American encyclopaedia. It focuses on scientific, technical and medical subjects. It has been published in 22 volumes till date. Each book in a volume covers all entries under one particular letter of the alphabet.

1962AD

The World Book encyclopaedia came up with a Braille version that filled 145 volumes. Eventually, all the Braille editions were donated to various institutes for the blind.

1993AD-2009AD

Microsoft Corporation published a digital multimedia encyclopaedia known as Microsoft Encarta.

1999AD-2003AD

Nupedia was an English language web-based encyclopaedia by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. It is known as the predecessor of Wikipedia. Nupedia was characterized by a peer-review process. The content was licensed and published as free content. Content was contributed by people who were supposed to be experts in the field.

January 15, 2000

Similar to Nupedia, Wikipedia is a multilingual web-based free content encyclopaedia supported by the Wikimedia foundation. It is based on a model of only openly editable content. January 15 is considered as Wikipedia Day. ‘Wiki’ refers to the Hawaiian word ‘wiki’ which means ‘quick’. The two words ‘wiki’ and ‘encyclopaedia’ together create ‘Wikipedia’. Unlike Nupedia, Wikipedia is written by a large number of volunteers, without pay. Anybody with Internet access can write or edit information on the site barring certain exceptions. All articles on the site are linked or cross-referenced making it easier to search for related information. Unlike printed encyclopaedias, Wikipedia can constantly get edited and updated and one need not wait for the new volume to be published.

Until the advent of digital media, valuable material in traditional encyclopaedias had to be discarded to make space for new modern topics. With the coming of the World Wide Web, encyclopaedias no more have fixed boundaries, whether in terms of size, space or number or entries. These recent online encyclopaedias have made information search much easier and faster but ancient encyclopaedias are storehouses of what has been before. These encyclopaedias are important useful sources of historical, political, social and cultural records of the world and need to be carefully preserved.

Neil Gaiman to become a King Neptune in 2018

By | Arty, Culture | No Comments
Award-winning fantasy and sci-fi author Neil Gaiman has announced that he will be becoming King Neptune this Summer.

At his side will be his queen- the wonderfully talented musician and artist, Amanda Palmer, and they will be jointly be ruling their watery subjects from the Coney Island Mermaid Parade float.

Coney Island prides itself on honouring American pop-culture through fresh and original shows and acts. Drawing from circus and theatrical traditions of P.T. Barnum, the people of Coney Island present uniquely American visual arts. This year the mermaid float will carry Queen Mermaid Amanda Palmer and King Neptune Neil Gaiman along the Coney Island Boardwalk before arriving at the beach for the official Beach Ceremony: the ‘opening’ of the ocean for the summer swimming season.

Read More

Stephen King gives $50,000 to Portland elementary schools

By | Authors, Culture | No Comments
Stephen King set up The Stephen & Tabitha King Foundation in 1986 to provide support for communities in Maine. As a family foundation, their key focus is community, with much of the donations going towards education and community projects.

The STKF has recently awarded a $50,000 grant that will be used to help with providing books and a literacy program in Portland elementary schools.

Spokeswoman Kate Snyder noted that Portland public schools’ Books and Literacy Resources program will certainly benefit from the award with the $50,000 used to build book collections to also celebrate culture and language differences.

Read More

Chinese artist saves lost art of dragon scale bookbinding

By | Arty, Culture | No Comments
Artist Zhang Xiaodong spends his time at his studio in Beijing recreating a lost Chinese bookbinding art.

The art can be traced back over 1,000 years to the Tang dynasty where dragon scale bookbinding was once reserved for the very wealthy and privileged of the Chinese people. Each piece was original and exquisitely hand made and passed down from generation to generation of royalty and the wealthier families.

Very few of the original books can be found today which prompted Zhang to look into the process and attempt to recreate it. Zhang found himself taking a more scientific approach to his artwork in an effort to recreate an exquisite piece just like the original artists did.

Read More

Turkish Garbage Collectors Open Library Full of Discarded Books

By | Culture, Libraries, News | 2 Comments
Turkish garbage collectors in the country’s capital city of Ankara have opened a public library that is full of books that were originally destined to be put into landfill. The workers began collecting discarded books and opened the new library in the Çankaya district of Ankara. News of the library has spread and now people have begun donating books directly to the library, rather than throwing them away. Read More

Sad and Bad Bunnies Star in Their Own Violent True Stories

By | Culture, Literature | No Comments
An American charity, Youth Ambassadors, which was established in 2010 has produced a book of true stories based on American children’s lives,. The book is full of cutesy animal characters drawn in juxtaposition with violent and shocking stories, in a collection named ‘Welcome To My Neighbourhood’.

Their website states the charity is an: “educational, not-for-profit employment program designed to empower underserved youth with the knowledge that they as teenagers have a vital voice. They have the power to be active participants in their communities, not just passive observers.”

The book is meant to highlight the scary situations some children experience in their lives, and the awful reality many disadvantaged kids live through.

Read More

5 Strange and Creepy Seasonal Creature Myths for Christmas

By | Culture, Literature | No Comments
Christmas time is full of strange customs and celebrations from cultures across Europe. Before Christmas time became what it is today, Pagan Europeans were marking Yule in their own way. Pagan celebrations eventually merged with Christian festivities, marking Christ’s birth instead of the Roman sun-god, Sol, and became something much like how we now celebrate.

Though people merged their cultures and adopted the Christian celebrations, some myths and local customs remain… And some of these are seriously creepy myths…

Read More



Leave a Reply