Printed Icon Lives On

The 2010 Encyclopaedia Britannica, the last print edition.

Back in the April 2 issue of C&EN, we at Newscripts lamented the news that Encyclopaedia Britannica was no longer going to be issued in print format. Although the venerable encyclopedia will still be available online, we considered that the loss of the printed icon would be detrimental to tactile learning gained by leafing through the meaty volumes. In particular we noted that in the 1967 edition, the section on chemistry spans more than 50 pages.

“Yes, that is a loss,” comments Newscripts reader Robert B. “Brad” Spencer of Madison, Wisc., who is proud owner of five sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica, including a reprint of the first edition from 1771. Spencer sent along this scan (below) of the beginning of the article on “Chemistry” from the first edition.

The article has no chemical element symbols—they hadn’t yet been established. It is also absent any formulas or equal signs, and the “long s” was still in use in English.  “Chemistry was a recognized field of interest at the time,” Spencer observes. “But it was still largely an outgrowth of alchemy.”

This first article states that the four principles (or elements) are earth, water, air, and fire, Spencer notes.  “Not that long ago the belief in these was still dominant,” he says. “But also notice what follows: a statement that our senses cannot possibly determine the principles of which they are composed, so we should, in essence, give up.  As we know, there were already at that time individuals who were not so pessimistic about the ability to dig deeper, and they began a marvelous understanding of chemical reality.” Thanks for sharing Brad.

Author: Steve Ritter

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