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John Harris Issues the First English Encyclopedia Arranged in Alphabetical Order

1704 to 1710
Title page and frontispiece of Harris, Lexicon Technicum vol. 1
Creative Commons LicenseJeremy Norman Collection of Images - Creative Commons

Lexicon technicum: Or, an universal English dictionary of arts and sciences: Explaining not only the terms of art, but the arts themselves, first issued in two volumes from London from 1704 to 1710 by English clergyman and encyclopedist John Harris, was the first English dictionary of arts and sciences, and the earliest modern encyclopedia of science. Harris was the first to make the distinction between “word-books” (dictionaries) and “subject-books (encyclopedias). His Lexicon Technicum was the also first English encyclopedia to be arranged in alphabetical order, as opposed to systematic order in the tradition of the medieval encyclopedist, Isidore of Seville.

A clergyman educated at Oxford, Harris took an early interest in science, and was elected to the Royal Society in 1696. As a result, he had access to many of the greatest scientific minds in England, and the Lexicon technicum may be the first example of an encyclopedist relying directly on the consultation and help of experts or specialists, such as John Ray and Isaac Newton. In particular, Harris relied heavily on Newton as a source, quoting lengthy excerpts from Newton's writings under such headings as “Attraction,” “Colour,” “Fluxions,” “Gravity,” “Light,” and “Motion.” The introduction to Vol. II contains the first printing (in Latin and English) of Newton’s “De natura acidorum,” his only published work on chemistry; the articles “Quadrature” and “Curves” give the first English translations of the “Two treatises” from Newton’s Opticks.  

Babson, Newton Supplement, 55. Collison, Encyclopedias, 99. Horblit, One Hundred Books Famous in Science no. 25a. Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine, no. 992. Printing and the Mind of Man no. 171a.

(This entry was last revised on July 8, 2014.)

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