The Proper Study of Mankind
The redesign of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the several decades before the Compton’s launch was a critical precursor to EB’s invention. Then, in 1988 and 1989, the Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia development project gave birth to the Britannica multimedia search system patent. Finally, with the first patent issuing in 2002, and continuation patent in subsequent years, the stage was set for Britannica to exploit its achievement more fully. English poet Alexander Pope began the second epistle of his 1732 work An Essay on Man with the couplet,
“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of Mankind is Man.”
His reference to our genome-embedded drive to understand ourselves and catalog our knowledge is symbolized and given tangible shape by the encyclopedic form. The long, continuous history of the encyclopedia in our civilization is evidence that our collective need for self-examination is hard- wired into our brains. Thus, the presence of a reference publisher at the center of a critical human/machine interface development in the 1980s was not entirely an accident. It stemmed in part from the very nature of encyclopedias in modern society.
The word “encyclopedia” comes from the Greek words enkyklios, meaning general, and paideia, meaning education The effort to create a system of knowledge or circle of learning in the form of an “encyclopedia” spanning humankind’s knowledge has been with us for over 2,000 years, although it hasn’t always been called this. Speusippus, who died in 339 B.C., recorded his uncle Plato’s thinking on natural history, mathematics and philosophy. Speusippus also apparently attempted to record detailed descriptions of different species of plants and animals.
However, it was Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedie ou Dictionnarie raisonne des Sciences, des Arts, a et des Metiers, published in 1751 in Paris, that first popularized the use of the term encyclopedia to describe works containing a broad compendium of knowledge. Shortly thereafter, in 1768, the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, the oldest and most comprehensive English- language encyclopedia, was published in Edinburgh, Scotland.