14 February 2005


Perhaps you've heard the legend of the 11th Edition of the Encyclopædia Brittanica.
Of course, what made this edition deliciously special were its contributors, over 1,500 of them, and not a lightweight in sight. The 11th was staff-written in part, but many, many notables contributed articles as well. Henry Ford wrote what was to become a classic essay on mass production. Naturalist John Muir, scientist T.H. Huxley and poet Edmund Gosse all penned brilliant pieces. The list of primary sources goes on and on, and even many of the staff-written articles were written by those who later kicked ass --- for example, a then unknown Bertrand Russell.

But it wasn't just who was doing the writing. It was also how it was written. It was conceived from the outset to be engaging and accessible, something the reading public could actually use. No longer would the encyclopedia be a repository for ponderous treatises. Suddenly, almost as if roused from a deep Victorian sleep, it sprang to life, breathing fresh insight into every imaginable topic

There was a set --- in the small format handy edition, no less --- floating around a dorm lounge at UC Santa Cruz, forgotten, and I've long regretted not stealing it. I regret no longer: it's public domain, and the whole thing is available online.

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