Ephraim Chambers, F.R.S. (1680?1740) was a self-proclaimed “Free-thinker” (today known as a “deist”). Free-thinkers advocated the free exercise of reason in matters of religious belief, unrestrained by deference to authority. Although often associated with atheism, the Free-thinker ethos was a natural out-growth of Boyle’s Christian Virtuoso.
Chambers was also a prolific popularizer. Before publishing his Cyclopædia, or, An universal dictionary of arts and sciences ... in 1728, he had translated Jean Debreuil’s work on perspective (The practice of perspective: or, An easy method of representing natural objects according to the rules of art ... The whole illustrated with one hundred and fifty copper-plates ..., London, 1726), which passed through 7 editions by 1780; Sebastian Le Clerc’s A treatise of architecture with remarks and observations necessary for young people who would apply themselves to that noble art (London, 1724), still being reprinted in 1732; and the chemical theories of the Dutch physician, Herman Boerhaave (16681738), A new method of chemistry; including the theory and practice of that art: laid down on mechanical principles, and accommodated to the uses of life. The whole making a clear and rational system of chemical philosophy. To which is prefix’d a critical history of chemistry and chemists, from the origin of the art to the present time written by the very learned H. Boerhaave; translated from the printed ed., collated with the best manuscript copies ... with additional notes and sculptures (London, 1727). Chambers later teamed with the botanist, John Martyn, to translate the multi-volume Histoire of the French Académie des Sciences (The philosophical history and memoirs of the Royal academy of sciences at Paris: or, An abridgment of all the papers relating to natural philosophy, which have been publish’d by the members of that illustrious society from the year 1699 to 1720. With many curious observations relating to the natural history and anatomy of animals, &c. Illustrated with copper-plates ..., London, 1742). As with his other popular translations, this one too went through several posthumous editions.
Chambers’ best-selling Cyclopædia appeared in 1728 in two handsome double-oversized volumes (39 cm.), with two-color title pages (red and black), and ample well-executed illustrations, some of which, including the frontispiece, were foldouts. There were separate plates (some of them double) for a wide range of topics: Algebra, Anatomy, Astronomy, Architecture, Conicks, Dialling, Fortification, Geography & Hydrography, Geometry, Hydraulics & Hydrostaticks, Mechanicks, Miscellany & Music, Natural History, Opticks, Perspective, Pneumatics, A Ship of War, Surveying, and Trigonometry. The plates, each of which typically included a variety of numbered figures, were integrated with the text, and positioned next to the article with the same subject heading.
The Cyclopædia’s influence was immediate, and considerable. Abraham Rees, who would edit and produce the authoritative supplement to Chambers’ original Cyclopædia in 17836, comments that the original two-volume work passed through five editions between 1728 and 1746. According to Rees, by the time the second edition of the Cyclopædia appeared in 1738, Chambers had already begun work on an enlargement:
This design, however, was frustrated by a bill agitated in parliament ... containing a clause that obliged the publishers of all improved editions of books to print the improvements separately.
So the second edition appeared “with corrections and additions,” but without the new material. And Chambers died a year after the third edition came out.
In fact, there were even more editions of Chambers’ “corrected and amended” two-volume original than Rees lists (including ones in 1750, and 17512). In addition, Chambers’ two-volume Cyclopædia was twice translated into Italian, plus excerpted, supplemented, and reprinted in all these forms before Rees published his authoritative supplement. Even a two-volume supplement which appeared in 1753, edited by George Lewis Scott, was soon translated into Italian (Supplemento di Giorgio Lewis al Dizionario universale delle arti e scienze di Efraimo Chambers ... traduizione esatta dall’inglese, Venice, 17625).
An icon of cultural history in its own right, Chambers’ two-volume Cyclopædia also served as the model for the Enlightenment’s most famous encyclopedia of science, Diderot’s and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers par la société des gens de lettres, published some two decades later, and initially conceived as little more than a French adaptation of Chambers’.
Abraham Rees, D.D. (17431825) added more than 4,400 “new articles” to Chambers’ scientific dictionary, transforming the original two volumes into five.
The reissued Cyclopædia ... with the Supplement, and Modern Improvements (spine title: Chamber’s dictionary) was, like the original issue, a magnificent publication. The five oversized volumes (slightly larger, at 43 cm.) were subtly redesigned for a more modern look, nicely typeset, and featured all new engravings and plates. The copy I examined showed slight variations in imprint: vol. 1, 1784; vol. 2, 1784; vol. 3, 1786; vol. 4, 1783; vol. 5, 1786. Volumes 3 and 5 were printed for J.F. and C. Rivington; vols. 1, 2 and 4, for W. Strahan, along with 28 others.
Many of Chambers’ “original articles” were “altered or enlarged” by Rees, with corrections, abridgements, and additions as necessary. Rees (and/or publishers) also altered Chambers’ design (e.g., switching to left-aligned paragraphing, adding vertical rules between columns, etc.), amended Chambers’ classificatory logic in places, and added an index, plus other prefatory matter.
All plates were moved into vol. 5, and the artwork for these redone. Rees tells us that
The Proprietors think themselves happy, that the extensive sail of this edition has enabled them to cancel most of the old Plates, and to be at the expense of new engravings; and to increase the number of new plates, far beyond their original design.
In turn, Rees’ own 17836 five-volume edition of Chamber’s dictionary was frequently adapted, altered, enlarged, and excerpted (e.g., Rees’s clocks, watches, and chronometers: (181920). A selection from the cyclopædia, or universal dictionary of arts, sciences, and literature ...).
The first American edition, The cyclopædia, or, universal dictionary of arts, sciences, and literature. By Abraham Rees, with the assistance of eminent professional gentlemen, was published in Philadelphia, 18051825. As “revised, corrected, enlarged and adapted to this country by several literary and scientific characters,” Rees’ five-volume Supplement of Chambers’ two-volume Cyclopædia metamorphosed into a 47-volume American behemoth, with six volumes (vols. 4247) reserved just for plates.
The frontispiece for Chambers’ Cyclopædia is so symbolically rich that no single analysis such as this can do it justice. While I’ve chosen to focus on certain elements that connect to broader she-philosopher.com themes, others will no doubt attend to different details, and offer different arguments than I do.
While I don’t know who was responsible for the design, the engraving was expertly done by a J. Sturt (as signed down in the lower-left corner). Considering the staggering amount of detail in this Where’s Waldo?-like visual allegory from 1728, I would say the engraver’s skill which, while invisible to many of us today, once drew the notice of art critics, authors, scientists, and other aficionados of print culture was as important as the designer’s in establishing the vision of the piece.
The frontispiece was probably designed in dialogue with Raphael’s famous painting, School of Athens. Chambers himself commented on this influential work of Raphael’s at the end of his article on “School”:
SCHOOL of Athens, in Painting, is a celebrated Piece of Raphael, now in the Vatican. It contains a great Number of Figures, representing Philosophers, Mathematicians, and other Persons, engaged in the Arts and the Sciences. Several Authors have wrote of this Painting, and given different Explications thereof. Vasari will have it to be, The Agreement of Philosophy, and Astronomy, with Theology. The Engravers, by the Inscription they add at the Bottom of the Print thereof, shew, That they take it for a Painting of St. Paul preaching at Athens. An Augustin of Venice, takes the Philosopher who is writing, for a St. Mark; and he at his Knees, for the Angel Gabriel. M. de Piles rejects all these Explications of the School of Athens, and especially the last; His Opinion is, That ’tis nothing more than the mere Image or Representation of Philosophy, which Raphael here designs under all the Philosophers he has painted. In Behalf of the Venetian Engravers it may be said, that they do not pretend to explain the Painting, but have only copied such of the Figures as they thought proper to represent St. Mark, St. Gabriel, &c.
The 17th-century French art critic, Roland Fréart, Sieur de Cambray whose criticism was well known in England from John Evelyn’s translation of his book, An Idea of the Perfection of Painting: Demonstrated From the Principles of Art, and by Examples conformable to the Observations ..., in 1668 interpreted Raphael’s great work as
the Representation of one of those famous Gymnasiums of Greece, where we may behold a general Assembly of all the knowing persons of Antiquity, as well Philosophers as Geometricians, Astrologers and others.
Furthermore, Fréart tells us, “Vitruvius describes the forme of these publick Edifices in the 5th Book, Cap. II, of his Works,” “and Palladio, in his Treatise of Architecture, lib. 3. cap. 21. discourses of them more clearly, because he gives us an ocular demonstration, by an ample and very exact designe.” Concludes Fréart, “the most celebrated and noble” of these public schools was that of Athens.
Throughout the early modern period, the idea of the Athenian gymnasium inspired numerous schemes for philosophical colleges. One of the best known, of course, was Francis Bacon’s “Romantick Model” of “a Society of Experimenters” in his New Atlantis where “many Heads and many Hands ... formed into an Assembly, that might intercommunicate their Tryals and Observations, that might joyntly work and joyntly consider” such that Nature’s “improvable and luciferous Phaenomena ... might be aggregated and brought into a common store” (as Joseph Glanvill described it in his 1668 Plus Ultra: or, the progress and advancement of knowledge since the days of Aristotle).
And counterposed to this “Romantick Model” of Bacon’s was Kircher’s equally famous real-life model, the Museo Kircheriano or Musaeum, housed in the Jesuits’ Collegio Romano (a school built in 1582 on the site of the ancient Roman temple of Isis, the goddess of wisdom). John Evelyn visited Kircher’s Musaeum in 1644, and recorded in his diary some details from his first visit:
Father Kircherus (professor of Mathematics and of Oriental languages) shew’d us many singular courtesies, leading us into the Refectory, Dispensatory, Laboratory, Gardens, and finally (through an Hall hung round with such of their Order as had been executed for their pragmatical and buisy adventures) into his own study, where, with Dutch patience, he shew’d us his perpetual motions, catoptrics, magnetical experiments, models, and a thousand other crotchets and devices, most of them since published by himself or his industrious scholar Schotti.
And of another visit, a couple of weeks later, on 24 November 1644, Evelyn wrote:
I went to the Jesuites Colledge, the front whereof gives place to few for its architecture, most of its ornaments being of rich marble. It has a marble Portico and court, sustained by stately columnes, as is the corridor over the Portico, at the sides of which are the Scholes for the Arts and Sciences, which are here taught as at a University. There I heard Father Athanasius Kircher upon a part of Euclid which he expounded. To this joyness a glorious and ample Church for the students; a second is not yet fully furnished; and there are two noble libraries where I was showed the famous wit and historian Famianus Strada.
Doubtless, this memorable visit to the Museo Kircheriano was in the back of his mind when Evelyn drafted his own elaborate proposal for a college of natural philosophy, complete with drawings, which circulated widely in the late 1650s, gaining the support of such individuals as Robert Boyle, John Beale, Abraham Cowley, and Sir Thomas Browne. In fact, Cowley was so inspired that he later proposed his own design for a philosophical college in A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy (1661) a proposal which Graham Parry has described as “close to the scheme that Evelyn had put to Boyle in 1659, though it was much more ambitious, with a full Baconian programme, and far less monastical, for it would be located close to London; its achievements would be rapidly translated into social benefits.”
Somewhat less orthodox were the models of natural philosophical community proposed by William Petty and Margaret Cavendish. Petty, the son of a Hampshire clothier who was still practicing his father’s trade in 1646, is best known now as the father of “political arithmetick” (that is, the sciences of statistics and economics). But before becoming famous for his economic writings and being knighted by Charles II (notably, Petty refused a peerage in later life because he considered it a “gaudy” display without “intrinsic value”), Petty was swept up in the Comenian educational reforms taking hold across Europe, and in 1648, published his related scheme for a “Gymnasium Mechanicum or a Colledge of Trades-men” under the title The Advice of W. P. To Mr. Samuel Hartlib For The Advancement of some particular Parts of Learning. Here, Petty described a vision of a public philosophical school where “the Prime and most Ingenious Workman” in each trade resided, rent-free, with brother master-craftsmen from all other trades, in order that the group might foster new inventions and collaboratively author the first great encyclopedia of technical knowledge, where all useful information would be classified with indices and tables. As Petty explained it:
All Apprentices by this Book might learn the Theory of Their Trades before they are bound to a Master, and consequently may be exempted from the Tædium of a seven years bondage, and having spent but about three years with a Master, may spend the other foure in Travelling to learn breeding, and the perfection of their Trades. As it would be more profitable to Boyes, to spend ten or twelue years in the study of Things, and of this Book of Faculties, then in a rabble of words, so it would be more suitable to the naturall propensions we observe in them.
Doubtless Petty’s scheme, complete with an economy-class “European grand tour” for apprentices in the trades, held real appeal for those whose education was, by and large, neglected by other more elite models of philosophical college. In this, Petty was drawing on his own positive experience with independent, self-directed study in the Comenian spirit. But it was also a variation on a set of ideas that had taken root in London by then among the middling classes, and in this sense, well in line with the overall spirit of the times.
Margaret Cavendish’s philosophical colleges added a proto-feminist orientation to the received romantic model. Her schemes for women’s colleges are described only in her fictional writings, and there is no evidence I know of that Cavendish ever concerned herself with substantive proposals on this subject, although it’s quite probable that her visions may have influenced later women writers, such as Mary Astell and Elizabeth Cellier, who were of a more practical bent and did make actual proposals. Despite the romantic nature of Cavendish’s woman-centered models, even the more fanciful convent of pleasure and learning (in The Convent of Pleasure, one of the Plays, Never before Printed in 1668) was probably rooted in ancient models such as Epicurus’ own famous “Garden,” home to his school of philosophy opened in 306 C.E. According to John Bellamy Foster, who has recently reassessed the Epicurean model and its historical impact, especially vis à vis new red-green sociopolitical alliances, “In the garden of Epicurus women were welcome and respected members of the community and philosophical discussions.”
This was not the case in the 1690s for she-philosophers participating in the literary hoax that was The Athenian Society a learned society, with no actual meeting-place or philosophical school outside of the ephemera churned out on behalf of John Dunton, bookseller, and his collaborators. Dunton’s fictional Athenian Society published (from 16901697) 20 volumes of a scientific serial, The Athenian Mercury, advertised as “Resolving weekly all the most nice and curious questions propos’d by the ingenious.” Among the ingenious questioners were a number of women, and in 1691, Dunton introduced a special section for the ladies.
Dunton and other Athenian Society collaborators, such as Charles Gildon, would continue to cater to a growing female readership otherwise known as “the fair-sex” but as Kathryn Shevelow has pointed out, The Athenian Society’s early model of “rational feminism” and feminine self-improvement was not without its contradictions:
But such an advocacy of “rational feminism” as we find in the Mercury, though it may have employed the rhetoric of equality, defined equality in a way consistent with the notion of a natural difference between men and women. At this early stage in its evolution, the periodical did not push vigorously an essentialist concept of gender differentiation, but it began to set into place the literary construction the special and distinct category of experience, and to some degree of expression, labeled “feminine” which would in later publications create a prescriptive image of women.
Of note, the new gender hierarchies were subtly inscribed in the iconography for The Athenian Society, which mockingly represents women and their interests as marginal to the serious business of the arts and sciences.
By the time we get to picturing the public gymnasium of Chambers’ imagination, almost 3 decades on, women are conspicuously absent from the scene. While the Cyclopædia’s 1728 frontispiece remains a wonderful testimonial to what Bourdieu has called the “collective intellectual,” there are no women included among the dozens of figures shown advancing the state of the universal arts & sciences, other than a sole female statue flanking the entrance way to the hall and library for Theology.
And there would be more erasures of identities to come.
In addition to the mass of figures shown actively engaged in artistic practices and deliberation, the names of revered figures from the past are well integrated with the present activities by being everywhere about the place.
In the upper left of the illustration, there is a row of busts named for Pythagoras, Epicurus, Plato, Descartes, and Newton.
In the upper middle, we find another row of busts named for Galileo, Bacon, Kepler, Gassendi, Huygens, Hooke, Hevelius, and Boyle; then a bit to the right of these, in line with various other symbols of achievement in natural history, a sole bust for Hippocrates.
And slightly above the group of sculptures named for Hooke, Hevelius, and Boyle, is the outline of another building edged with a row of busts named for Copernicus, Tycho, and Ptolemy.
In the lower left corner, there are two clumps of coins, also with names on them. The top 4 coins, representing past achievements in engineering and mathematics, are named for Archimedes, Euclid, Vitruvius, and Diophantus; the groups of 9 coins slightly below (4 of which I’ve not been able to make out), name prominent humanists and men of letters, including Seneca, Plutarch, Scaliger, Longinus, and Erasmus.
In the lower right corner, we find another cluster of coins naming prominent figures in political theory and history, including Hobbes, Leibniz, Locke, and Camden (again, I’m unable to make out the names on 3 of the coins).
And finally, some of the giants of natural history are named on the 7 medals which decorate the wall of the structure in the upper right corner: Aristotle, Pliny, Paracelsus, Harvey, Malpighi, Ray, and Evelyn.
Chambers’ choices here of influential names include some surprises for the historian of science. Few of us today are accustomed to thinking of John Evelyn as a great natural historian, and in this sense, Chambers’ frontispiece is a useful reminder of the dangers inherent in imposing our own straightforward narratives of scientific advance onto earlier ages.
Another surprise is to find Robert Hooke (often cited by Chambers within the text of the Cyclopædia) visually presented as one of the most eminent scientists of the age, along with another Newton competitor, Christiaan Huygens, also one of history’s disappeared. As with many of Hooke’s accomplishments, Huygens’ elegant wave theory of light still considered a “scientific masterpiece” was for all intents and purposes lost to science, as 18th-century research interests turned from kinematics to the dynamics of wave propagation (the solution to the equation of motion) in elastic media, where Newton’s formidable study in the Principia dominated. As A. E. Shapiro makes clear, it would take “over a half-dozen scientists in the nineteenth century fifteen years to reconstruct what Huygens had singlehandedly wrought in a few years.”
I believe that such lacunae in the history of science resulted from the 18th-century deification of Isaac Newton, which required the erasure of difference (of theories and persons) as well as an erasure of the role played by scientific community. And we find traces of this phenomenon, I think, in the changing visual rhetoric of the Cyclopædia frontispiece.
For the greatly expanded 17836 edition of the Cyclopædia, the frontispiece was redone, along with all the other plates. Still expertly engraved, this time by one T. Cook, only a portion of the original image was retained, and it was re-worked some. The rest of the original image, with its more inclusive message of the civic and participatory nature of human arts and sciences, disappeared. Significantly, all of the names those visual references to past voices, representing an ongoing dialectic between past and present were erased, along with much of the activity and energy of the piece. To me, the edited version of the 17836 edition, while visually cleaner and more focused, has less sense of history and tradition and diversity. In comparison with the 1728 original, the visual rhetoric of the 1783 edit borders on univocal.
There are two final observations I would make about the Cyclopædia frontispiece before closing. The first concerns the visual prominence of the magic lantern among the tools of practicing scientists and artists. This calls into question a common interpretation of the magic lantern and camera obscura as, even by 1728, “yesterday’s technologies” become playthings for the consuming public. In fact, the “camera obscura microscope” documented by Rees in the 17836 edition of the Cyclopædia is described as an early 18th-century invention (by Johann Lieberkühn, 17111756, in 1738/9). And the Swiss mathematician, Leonhard Euler (170783), who made original contributions in a number of scientific fields, including lunar theory, acoustics, and the wave theory of light and color, also concerned himself with magic lantern and camera obscura technologies, making improvements to each late in the century. As Rees reports:
M. Euler proposed a scheme to introduce vision by reflected light into the magic lantern, as well as the solar MICROSCOPE, by which many inconveniencies to which those instruments are subject, might be avoided....
The final issue I would raise for consideration concerns the pictures of individuals given on the busts and coins in the 1728 Cyclopædia frontispiece. These are not necessarily true-to-life representations, but more likely the imaginings of the engraver, who had considerable artistic license in such matters (as Chambers noted about the Venetian engravers’ interpretive representations of “St. Mark, St. Gabriel, &c.” for the prints of Raphael’s School of Athens). Even when there was room for more detailed drawings of individuals than we find in the 1728 Cyclopædia frontispiece, portraiture usually had more to do with the artist’s vision of a subject’s projected ethos than with too great a concern for strict verisimilitude. And in some cases, as with the frontispiece for the first edition of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican in 1632, there was no resemblance to the real historical figure whatsoever. E. N. da C. Andrade has given us a nice example of this (see below).