Ephraim Chambers Notes - Page 3

....from the Universal Magazine 1785

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.......The editor of the January 1785 issue of 'The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure,' (Volume 76), begins the issue with a brief description of the Frontispiece and in concluding says...

'....Such being the subject of our Frontispeice, we have a singular satisfaction in commencing this Volume with the Life of a Man, who has, perhaps more than any other, contributed to scatter the stores of Philosophy and Science among all orders and degrees of men. We mean the excellent Author of the Cyclopaedia.


Ephraim Chambers, Fellow of the Royal Society, and Author of the Scientific Dictionary which goes under his name, was born at Kendal, in Westmoreland. His parents who were Quakers, bred him up in the principles of their profession: to which, however, he shewed no attachment when he became his own master. His education was no other than that common one which is indented to qualify a youth for trade and commerce. When he became of a proper age, he was put apprentice to Mr. Senex the Globe-Maker, a business which is connected with Literature and especially with Astronomy and Geography. It was during Mr. Chambers's residence with this skilful mechanic, that he contracted that taste for science and learning which directed all his pursuits. It was even at this time that he formed the design of his grand work, the Cyclopaedia; and some of the first articles of it were written behind the counter. Having conceived the idea of so great an undertaking, he justly concluded that the execution of it would not consist with the avocations of trade; and therefore, he quitted Mr. Senex, and took chambers at Gray's-Inn, where he chiefly resided during the rest of his days.

.......The first edition of the Cyclopaedia, which was the result of many years of intense application, appeared in 1728, in two volumes, folio. It was published by subscription, the price being four guineas, and the list of subscribers very respectable. The dedication, which was to the King, is dated on the fifteenth of October, 1727. The reputation that Mr. Chambers acquired, by his execution of this undertaking, procured him the honour of being elected into the Royal Society, on the sixth of November, 1729.

....... In less than ten years time, a second edition became necessary, which accordingly was printed, with corrections and additions in 1738. It having been intended, at first, to give a new work, instead of a new edition, Mr. Chambers had prepared a considerable part of the copy with that view, and more than twenty sheets were printed off. The purpose of the proprietors, according to this plan, was to have published a volume in the winter of 1737, and to have proceeded annually in supplying an additional volume, till the whole was completed. But from this design they were diverted, by the alarm they took at an act then agitated in Parliament, in which a clause was contained, obliging the publishers of all improved editions of books to print the improvements separately. The bill, which carried in it the appearance of equity, but which perhaps, might have created greater obstructions to the cause of literature, than a transient view of it could suggest, passed the House of Commons, but was rejected in the House of Lords. In an advertisement, prefixed to the second edition of the Cyclopaedia, Mr Chambers endeavoured to obviate the complaints of such readers as might have been led to expect (from a paper of his published some time before) a new work, instead of a new edition. Whilst this edition was in agitation, Mr. Boyer, the learned printer, had conceived some extensive ideas of improving the Dictionary; but the plan, whatever it was, does not appear to have been reduced to practice. Mr. Clarke of Chichester, writing to his friend Boyer upon the occasion, said, 'Your project of improving and correcting Chambers is a very good one; but alas! who can execute it? You should have as many undertakers, as professions; nay, perhaps as many antiquaries, as there are different branches of ancient learning.' - So favourable was the public reception of the second edition of Chambers's Dictionary, that a third was called for in the very next year, 1739; a fourth two years afterwards, in 1741; and a fifth in 1746. This rapid sale of so large and expensive a work, is not easily to be paralleled in the history of Literature; and must be considered, not only as a striking testimony of the general estimation in which it is held, but, likewise, as a strong proof of its real utility and merit.

.......Although the Cyclopaedia was the grand business of Mr. Chambers's life, and may be regarded as almost the sole foundation of his fame, his attention was not wholly confined to this undertaking. He was concerned in a periodical publication, entitled 'The Literary Magazine,' which was begun in 1735. In this work he wrote a variety of articles, and particularly, a review of Morgan's Moral Philosopher. He was engaged, likewise, in conjunction with Mr. John Martyn, F. R. S. and Professor of Botany at Cambridge, in preparing for the prefs a translation and abridgment of the 'Philosophical History and memoirs of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris; or an abridgement of all the papers relating to natural philosophy which have been published by the members of that illustrious society.' This undertaking, when compleated, was comprized in five volumes octavo, which did not appear till the year 1742, some time after our author's decease, when they were published in the joint names of Mr. Martyn and Mr. Chambers. The only work besides, that we find ascribed to Mr. Chambers, is a translation of the 'Jesuit's Perspective,' from the French; which was printed in quarto, and has gone through several editions.

....... How indefatigable he was in his literary and scientific collections, is manifest from a circumstance which used to be related by Mr. Airey, who was so well known to many persons by the vivacity of his temper and conversation, and his bold avowal of the principles of infidelity. This Gentleman, in the very early part of his life, was five years (from 1728 to 1733) amanuensis to Mr. Chambers; and, during that time, copied nearly twenty folio volumes, so large as to comprehend materials, if they had been published, for printing thirty volumes in the same size. Mr. Chambers, however, acknowledged, that if they were printed, they would neither be sold nor read. His close and unremitting attention to his studies at length impaired his health, and obliged him occasionally to take lodging at Cannonbury-house, Islington. This not having greatly contributed to his recovery, he made an excursion to the South of France, but did not reap that benefit from it, which he had himself hoped, and his friends wished. Returning to England, he died at Cannonbury-house, and was buried at Westminster; where the following inscription, written by himself, is placed on the North side of the Cloysters of the Abbey:

Multis pervulgatus,
Paucis notus;
qui vitam, inter lucem & umbram,
Nec eruditus, nec idiota,
Literis deditus, transegit; sed ut home
Qui humani nihil a se alienum putat.
Vita simul, & laboribus functus,
Hic requiescere voluit,
Ephraim Chambers R. S. S.
Obiit xv. Maii, M.DCC.XL.

Heard of by many,
Known to few;
Who being neither very celebrated nor
yet obscure,
Neither very learned nor yet ignorant,
Passed a life devoted to study;
And passed it as a man
Who was not inattentive
To any of the offices of humanity:
Having ended his days and his labours
Here wished to repose,
He died on the xvth of May,

.......The intellectual character of Mr. Chambers was sagacity and attention. His application was indefatigable, his temper chearful, but somewhat hasty and impetuous; and in his religious sentiments he was no slave to the opinions commonly received. His mode of life was reserved; for he kept little company, and had not many acquaintance. He deserved, by his literary labours, much more than he acquired; the compensations of booksellers to authors being at that time far inferior to what, in certain instances, they have lately risen. This deficiency he supplied by ecconomy; and in pecuniary matters he was remarkably exact. In his last will, made not long before his death, but which was never proved, he declared that he owed no debts, excepting to his taylor for a rocquelaure.

.......Such are the few particulars that we have been able to collect, with regard to the personal history of Mr. Chambers. But this article, incomplete as it is, would be still more imperfect, if we did not add some farther circumstance concerning the Cyclopaedia. We have already mentioned that it came to a fifth edition in the year 1746. After this, whilst a sixth edition was in agitation, the proprietors thought that the work might admit of a supplement, in two folio volumes. This business was consigned to the late George Lewis Scott, Esq; who, in many respects was very equal to the undertaking. He was prevented, however. from doing much of it, by being appointed sub-preceptor to his present Majesty, when Prince of Wales. The little that was executed by Mr. Scott, was well performed, but it amounted only to a small number of sheets. As he was hindered from prosecuting the design, he committed the chief management of it to Dr. John Hill, so well known by his voluminous and hasty publications. Dr. Hill discharged the task assigned him with his usual rapidity. In fact, he principally contented himself with transcribing largely, from his own botanical writings. The supplement, therefore, which was published in the joint names of Mr. Scott and Dr. Hill, though containing a number of valuable articles, was far from being uniformly conspicuous for its exact judgement and due selection.

.......Thus the matter rested for some years, when it occurred to the booksellers, that it might be advantageous to themselves, and useful to the public, to combine the supplement, when properly corrected and abridged, into one alphabet with the original work, and to introduce such farther improvements and additions as the increase of knowledge in general, and of philosophical knowledge in particular, had lately afforded. The design was judicious and laudable; but the proprietors were not happy in the choice of the Gentleman to whom the completion of it was entrusted. This was Mr. Ruffhead, an able man in certain respects, and a man of undoubted application, but not the most proper person for conducting a scientific dictionary. The whole, too, or, at least, the most which he appears to have done, was his employing a literary assistant in transcribing, into an interleaved Cyclopaedia, and inserting in their due places all those parts of the supplement which he intended to adopt. There was reason to fear that the work, under Mr. Ruffhead's conduct, would have been executed in too hasty and imperfect a manner, when he was cut off by death. Upon this event the booksellers had another Gentleman recommended to them, of whom, without depreciating his general ingenuity, ability, and learning, it is no reflection to say, that he was not master of that accurate and extensive philosophical science which is peculiarly necessary to such an undertaking. Finding himself, therfore, embarrassed in it, he gave up the design; and the proprietors, at length, committed it to Dr. Rees. This was a happy circumstance both for themselves and for the public at large. It would have been difficult to have found a single person, that would have been more equal to the completing of the Cyclopaedia than Dr. Rees; who, to a capacious mind, a large compass of general knowledge, and an unremitting application, unites that intimate acquaintance with all the branches of mathematics and philosophy, without which the other qualifications would be ineffectual. The success of the work thus improved, and digested into one alphabet, and which is intended to be comprized in four volumes folio, has exceeded the most sanguine expectations.

.......This last and best edition of the Cyclopaedia began to be published in weekly numbers in 1778, and is now nearly finished. The sale is at a rate of above five thousand numbers in a week, and demand increasing. The names, therefore of Chambers and Rees will be handed down with great reputation to posterity, the first as the original author, and the second as the completer of so grand an undertaking.

....... The Cyclopaedia is not absolutely the first scientific dictionary whch has appeared in this country. It was preceded by Harris's Lexicon Technicum, the third edition of which was published in 1735. It has great merit in the mathematical articles, and Chambers was under obligations to it in this respect. Harris's design, however, was not so comprehensive as that of Mr. Chambers; so that the latter Gentleman may, perhaps, be considered as the first person who had the ability to form the plan, and attempt the execution, of a complete circle of the Arts and Sciences.

....... As the Cyclopaedia is so popular a work and has been so rapid and extensive in its sale, it is not surprizing that it has given rise to various publications of a similar nature. The most considerable of these, in our own country, are 'De Coetlogon's History of Arts and Sciences,' in two volumes, folio, 1745; 'Barrow's new and universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences,' in two volumes, folio, 1751; 'The complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences,' by Temple Croker and others, in three volumes, folio, 1763, and the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica,' in three volumes, quarto printed at Edinburgh, in 1773. Works of the same kind have, likewise, appeared on a smaller scale; and particularly. 'A new and complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences,' in four large volumes, octavo, in 1763. What is the particular merit of the several scientific dictionaries we have enumerated, it is not in our power say. One thing may safely be asserted, that whatever be their value, they have in no degree contributed to hinder the success, or obscure the glory of the Cyclopaedia.

.......This article we cannot conclude better than by observing, that if it be asked of what use are such works, we may answer, in the first place, that they communicate a general knowledge of things to large multitudes who would otherwise be wholly destitute of it, and are books ready to be consulted on every occasion of enquiry; secondly, that they convey information to the most learned, in matters which are remote from their peculiar investigation; and thirdly, that they are of advantage to scientific persons, even in their proper walk, by refreshing their memories with summaries of what they already know, and by pointing out to them subjects of future consideration. In short, they are useful to vast numbers of men, in various situations of life, and in a thousand different ways which it would not be easy to specify. We cannot, therefore, but rejoice in having been born in a period that is sensible of their importance, and in which they have been carried to so great a degree of perfection.'

.... after coming across a number of references to this article in the Universal Magazine, I finally managed to acquire a copy and was delighted to find so many new leads and details, the exact date of Chambers election to F.R.S. (not 1728 as reported elsewhere), a full translation of the inscription on his grave, the name of his amanuensis, Mr. Airey about whom there is another incredible story, as well as the mention of parallel works which are now rare and or as expensive as Cyclopaedias... .... this is perhaps one of the earliest biographical articles in existence and one can observe in all the later articles details which derive directly from it. Written only 45 years after Chambers death the author admits, that even then, little was known about the personal history of Chambers. While it would appear that most later articles such as that of 1911 edition Encyclopaedia Britannica are not very flattering as concerns Chambers or the Cyclopaedia, we see by this article that the Cyplopaedia was in it's day unparalleled, incredibly successful, and that Chambers's achievement was highly esteemed. One would think that his election as Fellow of the Royal Society proof that he was acknowledged as an intellectual and academic of no small proportion, yet today he is hardly remembered....

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