History of the Encyclopedia, How Did the Encyclopedia Emerge? What are the firsts and types?


What is an encyclopedia? What is encyclopedia word and dictionary meaning? How did it arise? What are the world’s first and most important encyclopedias?


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ENCYCLOPEDIA, a work that aims at giving a comprehonsive summary of all branehes of knowledge. Such works are frequently called “general enccyclopedias” to distinguish them from “special encyclopedias,” which are limited to a single field of knowledge or a group of allied fields. Encyclopedias usually consist of articles on separate subjects arranged in dictionary or alphabetical order to facilitate use. A classifîed arrangement or a combination of alphabetical and classifîed arrangement is sometimes used.

The word “encyclopedia“—in its original sense, “general education” or “course of general education“—came from the Greek words enkyklios (“general“) and paideia (“education,” “rearing of a child“). It continuea in use in this sense during the Middle Ages. The first work known to contain the word in the title was Encyclopaedia, seu orbis disciplinarum, tum sacrarum quam prophanum epitome (1559), which was compiled by Paul Scalich, also known as Paul Skalich or Paul Scaliger.

Variant spellings inelude: “encyclopaedia,” “cyclopaedia,” and “cyclopedia.” The usual British spelling is “encyclopaedia.” “Cyclopaedia” and “cyclopedia” are shortened forms.


Well into the 19th ccntury, the best encyclopedias were generally collections of monographs written by specialists for their peers. This concept changed with the rise of the middle elass and the spread of universal education. The modem encyclopedia strives to provide accurate, objective, attractively presented coverage of a vast array of subjects and to supply factual information on both current and past events.


Changes in teaching methods have given the encyclopedia new importance in education. Sets are now available in school and classroom libraries so that they may be consulted by students and studied for general and bibliographical information. Current sets are purehased to replace older works, and reference works of different publishers are frequently available for consultation. Public libraries are also meeting the inereased demands of students by providing more than one current encyclopedia.

The rise in income of the average wage earner has made it possible for an inereasing number of families to buy encyclopedias to help their children study at home. Encyclopedias are also used by the specialist who seeks information outside his own field. The alert and curious adult seeks to keep up with a changing world and to add to his knowledge by Consulting an encyclopedia.

In the article “Encyclopedie” in the famous French Encyclopedie, ou dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des metiers, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) wrote: “The aim of an encyclopaedia is to gather together the knowledge scattered over the face of the earth, to set forth its general plan to the men with whom we live and to transmit it to the men who will come after us, in order that the labors of past centuries may not have been in vain

Predecessors of Encyclopedias.

Two characteristics marked the early compilations now recognized as the precursors of the modern encyclopedia. First, they were the work of a single author, riot the produet of cooperative scholarship; they consisted of the compiler’s own deseriptions and interpretations of the things and ideas deseribed. Second, they were designed not for reference use but as treatises to be used primarily for instruetion. Of the ancient and medieval works, only the landmarks in encyclopedia history are described in this article.

Ancient Greece.

Authorities vary in designating the author of the first encyclopedia. Among the ancient Greeks the honor has been accorded both to Speusippus and to Aristotle, both disciples of Plato. Although only a fragment remains of the writings of Speusippus, he is known to have compiled an encyclopedic classification of plants and animals. Aristotle produced a large number of writings designed to sunmarize the knowledge and thought of his generation. His primary purpose was to provide a series of connected treatises for the use of his disciples.


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Ancient Rome.

Varro (116-27 b. c.) was reputed to be the most scholarly and voluminous of Roman writers. A contemporary of Julius Caesar, he was involved in the tempestuous political changes of his time and spent much of his early manhood soldiering or in exile, but after the formation of the Second Triumvirate he was able to settle down to a long period of literary production. Most of his works have been lost, but he is known to have produced Disciplinarum libri IX, dealing with the liberal arts, including rhetoric, mathematics, astrology, medicine, music, and architecture. Another encyclopedic work of his was De forma philosophiae libri III. He also compiled Imagines, a collection of biographies of 700 Greeks and Romans.

An early compilation that conforms more nearly to the presentday conception of an encyclopedia is the Historia naturalis of Pliny the Elder (23-79 a. d. ), a collection of thousands of facts and fables from several hundred authors. The work consists of 37 books in classified groups, devoted to geography, ethnography, zoology (including man), botany, medical botany, and mineralogy. Pliny did not discriminate between fact and legend, and he mixed sound science with old wives’ tales. His work was popular for centuries and went through many editions during the Middle Ages.


Middle Ages and Renaissance.

A new subject, Christian theology, and consequently a new point of view, began to appear in the encyclopedic literatüre of the early Middle Ages, along with the everpresent emphasis on Greek and Roman culture. St. Isidore of Seville (c.560-636), archbishop and author, compiled Etymologiarum libri XX, a classified encyclopedia in 20 books covering a vast range of subject matter. His work included a dictionary and was innovative in that some editions had pictures accompanying the text. The Etymologies, as it is called in English, marked the first use of illustrative material in encyclopedias. This encyclopedia was to remain popular for many centuries and was translated into various European languages.

The use of illustrations was further developed by Rabanus (Hrabanus) Maurus (c.776-856), archbishop of Mainz, in his revision and rearrangement of Isidore’s work. The Speculum majus, by the French Dominican friar Vincent of Reauvais (c.1190-c.1264), was compiled by a cleric for other clerics. The work, which was designed to be an encyclopedia of ali branches of knowledge of the time, consisted of three parts. These were Speculum naturale, a treatment of the natural sciences from the medieval point of view; Speculum doctrinale, on theology, philosophy, astronomy, geometry, education, law, medicine, and other subjects; and Speculum historiale, a survey of history down to 1250 a. d. A fourth part, Speculum morale, added later by an unknown author, appears in editions that were published after the introduction of printing in Europe in the mid-15th century. Vincent’s Speculum long retained its reputation as a compendium of the knowledge of his world. Like Isidore, Vincent deserves our gratitude for preserving fragments of authors whose work would othenvise have been lost.

The Florentine author and scholar Brunetto Latini (died c.1294), who was also a close friend of Dante, stressed political science rather than theology in Li livres dou tresor. Latini’s work, based on the writings of Cicero, was written in French, a language familiar to the educated Italian middle classes and especially those concerned with the governments of the Italian republics.

An English work of the early Renaissance was William Caxton’s Mirrour of the World (1481). This translation of Le livre de clergie, nomme l’image du monde, was a compilation from Latin sources. It was illustrated with woodcuts.


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Francis Bacon, the English essayist, philosopher, and statesman, shaped the development of encyclopedias by the publication of his program for the renovation of knowledge, out-lined in The Great Instauration (1620). The plan contained, in detailed form, his concept of the relationship among the various branches of human knowledge. Diderot was later to acknowledge that the philosophical basis of this scheme was extremely helpful in the creation of his famous Encyclopedie.

Johann Heinrich Alsted’s Encyclopaedia septem tomis distincta (1630) was one of the last such works published in Latin. Thereafter the modern European languages were used even for learned works, and this, along with the earlier introduction of printing, proved to be a step in the popularization of education. Alsted’s material was arranged in broad classifications, more a collection of treatises than a work of reference. It included an essay on the use and abuse of tobacco, at that time a new and important topic.

The 17th and early 18th centuries marked the transition from the classified to the alphabetic arrangement. An early example was Johann Jacob Hofmann’s Lexicon universale historico-geographico-chronologico-poetico-philologicum (1677), with a 2-volume supplement (1683). A few years later Marco Vincenzo Coronelli (1650-1718), an Italian geographer, embarked upon a project for a 45-volume Italian encyclopedia. Of this work, Bihlioteca universale sacroprofana, only 7 volumes were published (1701-1706).

Early Special Encyclopedias.

An early example of the special biographical and historical encyclopedia was the Grand Dictionnaire historique ou melange curieux de l’histoire sacree et profane, of the French priest Louis Moreri, published at Lyon in 1674. Moreri’s work went through many editions and translations into English, German, Spanish, and Italian and is said to have motivated Pierre Bayie to compile his important Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697). Bayie, son of a French Calvinist minister, had attended a Jesuit college, become a Roman Catholic, and then returned to the Protestant faith. He devoted himself to the compilation of his Dictionnaire, which, although it presented his own skeptical philosophy, was long an authoritative reference work. It had great influence upon the French Encyclopedie and especially upon the articles therein written by Voltaire.

Early English Encyclopedias.

The first notable example of alphabetic arrangement in an encyclopedic work in English was that by John Harris (c.1667-1719). This work, the Lexicon Technicum: or, an Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Explaining not only the Terms of Art, but the Art s Themselves (1704), appeared in one volume, followed by a second edition in two volumes (1708-1710). Its emphasis was on mathematics and the physical sciences, and it omitted theology, biography, and poetry. The inclusion of Sir Isaac Newton’s treatise on acids and the mention of authorities in some of the articles were novel features in encyclopedia making and ushered in the use of expert contributors as well as the citation of bibliographies.

A milestone in the development of the encyclopedia in England was Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, containing an explanatiou of the terms, and an account of the things signified the

reby, in the several arts, liberal and mechanical, and the several sciences, human and divine (1728). This work—and not the later and unrelated Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, named for the Scottish publishers Robert and William Chambers —was the basis of the great French Encyclopedie. Chambers’ Cyclopaedia was first translated into French in 1745 by John Mills and Gottfried Sellius and was later enlarged under the editorship of Deniş Diderot and Jean d’Alembert, to form the Encyclopedie (1751-1772). Chambers’ work, in translation, also became the first completed Italian encyclopedia (Venice 1748-1749).


The contributions of Ephraim Chambers to the progress of encyclopedia making were his policies of drawing on outside authors for contributions and of providing a workable system of cross-references. In England, a revised and enlarged Chambers’ Cyclopaedia edited by Abraham Rees was first published in 1778-1788. It went through various editions and later formed the basis of Rees’ 45-volume Cyclopaedia, completed in 1820.

Dennis De Coetlogon’s Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (2 vols.; London 1745) illustrated the monographic method of compilation in its extreme form. ît consisted of 161 treatises on special subjects arranged in alphabetic order by subject.


One of the predominant leaders in the encyclopedia field in the 19th century was the German publisher Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus. The term Konversations-Lerikon was selected by Brockhaus as the title for his encyclopedia (1st ed. 1796-1808) to intimate to his readers, largely members of the middle class, that his work contained the polite learning that could gain them acceptance into good society. RegardIess of the truth of this assumption, his work met with such success that “Brockhaus” became a household name for “encyclopedia.”

Brockhaus’ innovations in editing and publishing were imitated in many countries. His standards of accuracy and insistence on the inclusion of the latest material were maintained in revised editions and supplements. Illustrations of high quality, including both color and black-and-white maps, color plates, reproductions of portraits, and facsimiles of autographs were used profusely throughout the text.

Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The first edition of the Encyclopsedia Britannica was begun in 1768 and completed in 1771. The era was one of pamphleteering and installment publishing, and the first Britannica was issued in 100 weekly numbers. In completed form it was published in three volumes, comprising about 2,600 pages, with 160 copperplates. It combined monographs and b

rief entries, the monographic form predominating. Main subjects treated in long articles covered many pages, while brief entries were included for subordinate topics with cross-references to the longer articles. The index, intended as a guide to the hidden material, was, in the earlier ditions, never entirely adequate. The monographic method was continued through the 9th edition (1875-1889), but was gradually modified. By the 14th edition the long articles had largely been supplanted by shorter articles under specific headings.

The 14th edition (23 volumes and index), first published in 1929, marked the first definite attempt to popularize and, to a considerable extent, Americanize the encyclopedia, which for more than 150 years had been primarily British in content and approach. The Britannica stili reflects traces of British origin in its spelling of certain words and in its frequently detailed treatment of British topics. The Britannica Book of the Year is issued annually.

Other British Encyclopedias.

Chambers’s Encyclopaedia was first issued in weekly parts in Edinburgh, Scotland, from 1859 to 1868. In subsequent editions, it acquired and maintained a reputation for scholarship and reliability, and it is widely regarded as one of the major British general reference works. Chambers’s Encyclopaedia is not revised annually. The 4th revised edition was published in London in 1967. Chambers’s Encyclopaedia World Survey appears annually as a supplement.

A reputable smaller general reference work is Everyman’s Encyclopaedia, first issued in 12 volumes in London and New York in 1913-1914. It is issued in the United States under the title International Everyman’s Encyclopaedia. A new edition in weekly parts began publication in England in 1970.


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Early American Encyclopedias.

The New American Cyclopaedia, a popular dictionary of general knowledge, edited by George Ripley and Charles A. Dana in 16 volumes, was published by D. Appleton and Company in 1858-1863; it became in its second and later editions the American Cyclopaedia. Alvin J. Johnson’s New Universal Cyclopaedia appeared in four volumes in 1875-1878. Later editions were expanded to 12 volumes, and a new edition, later called Appleton’s Universal Cyclopaedia under the editorship of Charles K. Adams, was published in 12 volumes in 1902. The International Cyclopaedia appeared in 1884. It was based on Alden’s Library of Universal Knowledge, itself an American reprint, with additional articles, of the 1878-1880 edition of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia. The International Cyclopaedia was superseded by the Netv International Encyclopedia, in 17 volumes (1902-1904). Later editions and supplemer^s were issued until 1935.

Collier’s Encyclopedia.

Published in 1949-1951, Collier’s Encyclopedia, in 20 volumes, was a completely new work. It was well received, and in 1962 it was expanded to 24 volumes, with annual editions issued thereafter under a continuous revision program. Collier’s Yearbook serves as a supplement to the encyclopedia, as well as an annual survey of major events.


American Peoples Encyclopedia.

In 20 volumes, the American Peoples Encyclopedia first appeared in 1948. It was designed to be a general encyclopedia in the medium price range. The American Peoples Encyclopedic Yearbook is issued as a supplement.

Encyclopedia International.

The Encyclopedia International, a new work in 20 volumes, was first published in 1963. It has a detailed index and many illustrations. Grolier Universal Encyclopedia, a 10-volume set based principally on the Encyclopedia International, appeared in 1965. The Encyclopedia Year Book is issued annually as a supplement to both sets.

Funk and Wagnalls.

Funk and Wagnalls Standard Reference Encyclopedia is derived in part from earlier encyclopedias. Its present title was adopted in 1959. The set is published annually in 25 volumes, with a yearly supplement entitled Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia Yearbook.

Shorter Encyclopedias.

To meet the needs of persons with limited book space and of those who desire less complete and detailed coverage at less cost, abridgments of larger works and independent, briefer compilations have been issued. In Germany, Brockhaus has published small sets compiled from larger ones. Larousse, in Franee, has issued abridgments of its large reference work, including Petit Larousse, a single-volume encyclopedia. A brief, yet comprehensive American work is the Columbia Encyclopedia (1st ed., 1935; 2d ed., 1950; 3d ed., 1963), a one-volume work designed primarily for home and office use. A 16-page supplement, issued in 1967, appears at the end of the 3d edition. An abridged edition of the Columbia has been issued as the Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia (3d ed., 1968). Another reputable short reference work is the Lincoln Library of Essential Information (1st ed., 1924); the 34th edition appeared in 1971. An up-to-date manual for daily reference use, the Lincoln Library is arranged in chapters on the principal fields of knowledge, rather than alphabetically. The book, which contains convenient tables and special dictionary sections, has a detailed alphabetic index.

Encyclopedias for Younger Readers.

The first known encyclopedia compiled for children was Pera librorum juvenilium (1695), published in Altdorf, Germany, and edited by Johann Christoph Wagenseil. One of the earliest juvenile reference works published in English was John Newbery’s Circle of the Sciences (London 1745). However, the first large-scale encyclopedia for youngsters was the famous Children’s Encyclopaedia, issued in England in 1908.

The Book of Knowledge, an American edition of the Children’s Encyclopaedia, was published in 24 volumes in 1910. Topically arranged, the set offered not only general information, but also stories, poems, games, and material about hobbies. In 1966, a complete new edition, alphabetically arranged in 20 volumes, was issued as the New Book of Knowledge. The Book of Knowledge Annual serves to update the material in the set.

The World Book Encyclopedia was first published as the World Book in 1917. Beginning in 1925, revisions have been made annually. It is issued in 20 volumes, with a yearly supplement entitled the World Book Year Book.

Compton’s Encyclopedia and Fact Index appeared in 24 volumes in 1971. (When first published in 8 volumes in 1922, it was called Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia.) At the end of’each volume is a “Fact-Index,” which not only contains references to related material in other volumes but also provides capsule articles on subjects not included in the text itself. The Compton Yearbook appears annually.

Britannica Junior, first published in 1934, was retitled Britannica Junior Encyclopedia in 1963. It is issued in 15 volumes and has a continuous revision program.

Merit Students Encyclopedia, a 20-volume reference work, was first published in 1967. It is arranged alphabetically and includes a detailed index and many illustrations.

Major European Encyclopedias


The famous Encyclopedie, ou dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des metiers of Diderot and d’Alembert, published between 1751 and 1772 in 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of engravings, was a landmark in the history of encyclopedia making on the continent of Europe. It ineluded contributions by many 18th eentury political and religious reformers, among them Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu, who used it as a vehicle for their radieal philosophy. Much opposition to its publication arose, and it barely escaped final suppression and destruetion. The Encyclopedie had a marked influenee on the thought that led to the French Revolution. A 35-volume edition of the work—consisting of the original 28 volumes, plus 7 volumes not under the original editorship—was completed in 1780.


During the last half of the 19th eentury, two encyclopedie works, stili of great reference value, were published in Paris. La Grande Encyclopedie in 31 volumes (1886-1902), with signed articles, especially on medieval and Renaissance subjects and in history, literatüre, and biography, is stili recognized as authoritative. Larousse’s Grand Dictionnaire üniversel du XIX” siecle français in 17 volumes (1865—1888) combines the funetions of a dictionary and an encyclopedia and ineludes both long and short articles. It is especially useful for literatüre, biography, and history and carries many entries on musical and literary works under their own titles. Texts of songs with their melodies are an unusual feature. Larousse also published later and briefer encyclopedias that are neither revisions nor abridgments of the Grand Dictionnaire, such as Nouveau Larousse illustre (8 vols.; 1898-1906), which is copiously illustrated and particularly useful for art subjects and reproduetions. This was supplemented by Larousse mensuel illustre, a work that appeared monthly between 1907 and 1957. Another reference work was Larousse du XX” siecle (1928-1933), in 6 volumes. A new set based on some older material was published as Grand Larousse encyclopedique en dix volumes (1960-1964). A supplement was published in 1968. Recent special and abridged works are Larousse: trois volumes en couleurs (1965-1966) and Encyclopedie pratique Larousse, of whieh the title of the 4th volume, Cuisine moderne et gastronomie, gives an indication of its practical nature. An extensive project that was interrupted by World War II is Encyclopedie française. Material was’1 issued in loose-leaf binders between 1935 and 1939. Publication was resumed in 1953 in book form, with volume 21, the final and index volume, appearinş; in 1966. Another work is Encyclopedie efe la Pleiade, with individual volumes devoted to a particular subject. The first volume of a new work, Encyclopaedia Universalis, appeared in 1968. A set of 20 volumes is planned, with volumes 17, 18, and 19 to constitute an analytical index, and volume 20 to be a systematic guide to the set. Instead of following the common practice of having short entries under specific titles, the editorial policy is to have long articles on broad subjects.


Some of the most voluminous encyclopedias have been the product of German industriousness. Zedler’s Grosses vollstandiges Universal-Lexikon aller Wissenschaften und Künste …(1732-1750), in 64 volumes, is stili useful both for subject matter and bibliographies. The Allgemeine Enzyklopadie der Wissenschaften und Künste von genannten Schriftstellern bearbeitet (1818-1850), known as “Ersch and Gruber’s,” was never completed. More than 170 volumes were published, ineluding exhaustive and authoritative articles by specialists. The last and some intermediate parts of the alphabet were lacking.

Brockhaus’ Konversations-Lerikon (1st ed. 1796-1808), with frequent revisions, has been one of the most successful encyclopedias and has served as a model for encyclopedias in other languages. Used as the basis of Lieber’s Encyclopaedia Americana, Chambers’s, and the International, Brockhaus has had a definite influenee upon the development of encyclopedias in the United States. It was an early exponent of the short article, as contrasted with the monograph, and was designed for quick and easy consultation. The 16th edition, known as Der grosse Brockhaus (1952-1960), appeared in 12 volumes with two supplementary volumes and an atlas. The first volume of the completely revised and reset I7th edition called Brockhaus Enzyklopadie was published in 1966.

Mcycrs Konversations-Lexikon (1st ed., 1839-1852) is similar to Brockhaus and has short unsigned articles and profuse illustrations. Mcycrs neues Lexikon, in 8 volumes, appeared in 1961-1964. The publisher is now offering a major comprehensive work for ali German-speaking people— Mcycrs Enzıjklopadisches Lexikon, begun in 1971. It is to be issued in 25 volumes, with an atlas volume and annual supplements. The 5th edition of Der grosse Herder, a general encyclopedia written from a Catholic point of view, appeared in 1953-1956 in 10 volumes, with two supplementary volumes issued in 1962. Der neue Herder, in 6 volumes, appeared in 1965-1968.


A comprehensive work is Encyclopedia universal ilustrada europeo-americana (1905-1933), known as Espasa, the name of its publisher. It consists of 70 volumes with 10 supplementary volumes. Since 1934, yearly supplements have been issued. The set is especially noteworthy for its remarkable coverage of geographic subjects. A smaller general work is Diccionario enciclopedico Salvat (9th ed., 1960), in 12 volumes. Enciclopedia Lahor (1955), in 9 volumes, is noted for its Latin American coverage. An unusual encyclopedia about the Basque country and people is Enciclopedia general ilustrada del pais vasco, published in Spanish. It is in three separate seetions: short entries on specific subjects, longer entries on broader subjects, and bibliography.


Italy’s outstanding reference work is Enciclopedia italiana di scienza, lettere ed arti (1929-1939), in 36 volumes and 5 supplementary volumes (1938—1961). its reputation rests on its long scholarly articles accompanied by bibliographies and numerous illustrations. A shorter general work is Enciclopedia Hoepli (new ed., 1955-1968), in 7 volumes.

Other Countries.

  1. Argentina. Argentina has produced Diccionario enciclopedico Peuser (1962-1963), in 6 volumes.
  2. Australia. The Australian Encyclopedia (1963), in 10 volumes, is an extensive work treating ali aspects of Australian life.
  3. Brazil. The 9th edition of Dicionârio enciclopedico ilustrado Formar, in 6 volumes, was published in 1967.
  4. Canada. The standard work is Encyclopedia Canadiana (1957), in 10 volumes.
  5. Denmark. Gydendals store opslagbog is a 5-volume work published in 1967-1969.

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