First Issued: March 2004
Reissued: 22 August 2012
Revised (substantive): n/a
Part I: Editor’s Introduction to Chambers’ two Cyclopædia articles on design
TRANSCRIPTION of the two articles on design from the first and eighth editions of Ephraim Chambers’ popular Cyclopædia, or, an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences is provided here in HTML format for my colleagues in the design community.
As I have argued before, Ephraim Chambers (1680?–1740) compiled his Cyclopædia at a time when design was still an integral part of the technological arts & sciences, largely because the divine (god and/or nature) was still conceived as the quintessential designer. Throughout the early modern period, investigation of the natural world reinforced the culture’s deep appreciation for the undergirding aesthetic of divine design, in turn prompting sustained reflection on how such wonders related to human practices (for example, see the introductory essay on Robert Hooke in the Players section). As such, the study and practice of design offered one important means of comprehending the natural world and the human being’s role within it.
Far from being an antique curiosity, early-modern scientific interest in the design of the natural world actually dovetails with post-modern philosophico-religious debates over what’s come to be known as “intelligent design.” And 17th-century students of natural design had much in common with those of us today who look to nature’s designs for improved, more sustainable models of development. Of note, this renaissance of interest in nature’s designs has attracted more than just artists, designers and engineers. It is not limited to the usual academics such as zoologist Steven Vogel, author of Cats’ Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People, but extends, as it did in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the titans of commerce, such as social entrepreneur Ray Anderson, author of Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose — Doing Business by Respecting the Earth. In his book, Anderson argues passionately about the pressing need for “a vast, ethically driven redesign of our industrial system, a new industrial revolution that corrects the many things the first one got wrong,” presenting the transformation of his billion-dollar carpet business, Interface, from “an extension of the petrochemical industry” to a model business case for sustainability, as partly inspired by the very physical environment it seeks to sustain:
... Even better, taking a sledgehammer to conventional wisdom [which reflects and reinforces the “take-make-waste” industrial economy] has thrown innovation into overdrive. We’ve patented machines, processes, and products that do a whole lot more with a whole lot less, and better, too. Each year, more of our products take their inspiration from nature, exhibiting nature’s beauty as well as benefiting from her genius for design that has been perfected over billions of years.
We’re making more of our carpets from recycled materials, too; at last count, we’ve kept 175 million pounds of carpet out of landfills and trimmed the scrap we generate and send to the landfills by 78 percent. Now, what used to be waste for the landfill goes back into our factories as feedstock. Valuable organic molecules are salvaged to be used again and again, with less fresh oil required each year, emulating nature in our industrial processes. After all, in nature, one organism’s waste becomes another organism’s food.
(Anderson, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, 4)
Questions about whether biological designs are somehow intrinsically more appropriate to human activity than human designs (Vogel thinks not, arguing for the advantages of human engineering techniques in achieving human goals) have been with us for centuries, and there is much we can learn from the debates over design in different eras and cultures. Chambers’ inclusion of design terms in his Cyclopædia testifies to design’s past prominence as a respected “universal” art/science, while at the same time binding it closely to a particular time and place. Tied to painting, industrial arts, and evolving technologies (such as the camera obscura), design back then was both like, and unlike, what we think of as design today.
I believe the writer and lecturer on science, John Harris (c.1666–1719), was the first to include an article on design in an encyclopedia. Harris’ Lexicon Technicum: or, an Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences Explaining not only the Terms of Art, but the Arts Themselves (1704–1710) greatly influenced Chambers, who often expanded on Harris’ more perfunctory descriptions of practices, processes, and technologies, using these as a starting point for his more prolix Cyclopaedia articles. Harris defined design simply and, as was then common, linked the visual with the verbal, associating good design with good writing (the better known art at the time):
DESIGN, in Painting or Sculpture, is the Expression of the Images or Ideas that the Painter hath conceiv’d in his Mind, on the Picture, &c. and it is Good, when the Author has a good Gusto and correct Judgment: This is the Basis and Foundation of all other Parts, and may be compared to the Stile of a correct Writer. But the Painters call Designs chiefly such Draughts as they usually express on Paper, in order to the Performance of some considerable Piece of Work: A feint imperfect Design is usually call’d a Sketch.
(Harris, Lexicon Technicum, vol. 2, 1710, s.v. Design)
Chambers’ quite different take on the subject suggests his own hands-on, in-depth experience with design arts and tools, especially in enumerating 7 culturally-specific principles of good design — correctness, good taste, elegance, character, diversity, expression, and perspective — that are still instructive. Also of note, Chambers points out that rules are “of less avail” in design than in other branches of the visual arts. And he advises novices to avoid relying on technologies, such as “Squares in drawing; for Fear of stinting and confining their Judgment.” Given the 21st century’s proliferation of computer-aided design tools, Chambers’ warning about the pitfalls of relying so heavily on our tools that we allow technology to drive design is perhaps even more relevant today than it was when he first issued it in 1728.
When Abraham Rees (1743–1825) issued his revised and enlarged edition of Chambers’ Cyclopædia between 1778 and 1788, Rees supplemented Chambers’ original write-up on design technologies with discussion and illustration of the popular apparatus “used by Sir Christopher Wren for the purpose of designing.” Similarly, in the related article on designing with the camera obscura (which I have reproduced elsewhere), Rees added verbal and pictorial descriptions of more varieties of camera than Chambers originally discussed, including Robert Hooke’s design of a camera lucida, over 100 years earlier (again, this write-up owed much to Harris’ article on the camera lucida in his Lexicon Technicum). It should be pointed out that this interest in technology was not new with Rees, but in the same spirit as Chambers’ own tendency to emphasize modern mechanical inventions; indeed, there is reason to believe that here Rees was simply integrating new material already assembled by Chambers during the 1730s for an expanded edition.
According to Rees, such was
... the opinion of the public, with regard to the merit of the CYCLOPÆDIA, that the sale of it had exceeded that of any other publication of equal price. The second edition in 1738 was so favourably received, as to require the publication of a third in 1739, of a fourth in 1741, and of a fifth in 1746.
(Rees, “Preface to the New Edition” in vol. 5 of the Cyclopædia, printed at London in 1786)
Chambers’ two-volume Cyclopædia, published in 1728, 1738, and 1739 (the first two edns. printed at London, and the 3rd edn. at Dublin), originally cost 4 guineas and was successful enough to justify a posthumously-published, two-volume Supplement in 1753, followed by Rees’ own enlargement (running to 5 vols.) in 1778–1788.
Rees tells us in his 1786 “Preface to the New Edition” that Chambers had recognized the market potential of his Cyclopædia early on, and had begun work on an enlargement to the two-volume edition of 1728 even before the 2nd edn. of the Cyclopædia appeared in 1738.
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.
(Rees, “Preface to the New Edition”)
Because of the pending Parliamentary legislation, Chambers held off on making any planned “improvements” to his work, bringing out the second and third editions of his Cyclopædia “with corrections and additions” only. Frustrated in his plans for publishing a greatly enlarged edition of his Cyclopædia, Chambers left in manuscript enough materials for seven new volumes when he died in 1740.
Rees made heavy use of Chambers’ unpublished MSS., and I believe these papers were his primary source for the added information about mechanical assists for hand & eye used when “designing from nature” and for copying existing designs & drawings — something that commercial artists, such as the portrait painters working in Peter Lely’s thriving art studio post-Restoration, often had to do in order to meet the burgeoning demand for their product. Then, as now, any technique that helped visual artists — everyone from architects to weavers — work smarter and faster, improving on their overall productivity, was in great demand.
Wren’s perspectograph — which allowed the user to trace a view on paper using a movable sight linked to a pen — was developed in the early 1650s, and demonstrated at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1663, after which more prototypes were built and sold. Lisa Jardine has pointed out that while Wren would be allowed to take credit for several inventions dating from around the early 1650s (including an agricultural machine for sowing seed, a double-writing machine, and a mechanical perspective machine), these were really the brainchild of the collective intellectual that was the Wilkins-Petty group (aka the Oxford Circle), and
... are itemised repeatedly in “histories” of the group as “useful knowledge” discovered by the pre-Royal Society scientists. They are attributed to different members of the group on different occasions, and purport to be “newly” discovered at any time between 1648 and the mid-1660s.
(Jardine, On a Grander Scale, 89)
(And in turn, the Wilkins-Petty group was probably inspired by earlier technologies, such as Sir Hugh Platt’s invention of a tracing machine, as described in his popular The Jewel House of Art and Nature [1st edn., 1594; with a reissue in 1653 that was printed by a woman, Elizabeth Alsop (fl. 1647–1664), and later reviewed by Henry Oldenburg in an issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London]. Cf. the digital edition of Platt’s published description of his drawing machine, also in the She-philosopher.com Library.)
Of note, Chambers/Rees never claimed in the updated Cyclopædia article on Designing that Wren invented the scenographic apparatus documented therein. Chambers, as revised by Rees, states only that Wren used the apparatus — presumably in his large architectural practice, where such labor-saving devices would have helped with production of multiple copies of drawings and allowed “less skilled draughtsmen to produce competent versions of a view or an image.” (Jardine, On a Grander Scale, 96) Whether Wren himself regularly used such a machine is not known, but I rather doubt it. By all accounts, Wren’s own “drawing and drafting skills were exceptional — Wren’s ‘hand’ is remarked on in every graphic representation he produces, in whatever field, throughout his life.” (Jardine, On a Grander Scale, 58)
According to the architectural historian, Kerry Downes, Wren actually “developed drawing as a method of design research,” honing this approach over the 36-year period when he worked on the design and reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral (i.e., “between the start of the new building in 1675 and the declaration by parliament of its completion in 1711”). But even as a precocious adolescent, the man Isaac Barrow characterized as a “boy prodigy” (“now, a miracle of a man, nay, even something divine”), showed an exceptional talent for visual thinking, as well as a keen interest in developing graphic aids and visual demonstrations of theory, all of which would serve him well as “England’s most famous architect.”
Wren’s visually-oriented approach to design certainly influenced Robert Hooke — already exhibiting genius as a visual thinker — as well as other Royal Society Fellows, who soon came to expect models of all difficult scientific concepts from their over-worked curator of experiments. Wren’s style of design research also set the bar for those in the genteel classes who were interested in architecture, as it affected improvements and remodeling of their own estates; those charged with making public policy decisions about Britain’s built environment (e.g., cities, churches, royal palaces, hospitals, libraries); and for the many individuals connected with the building trades (especially masons and carpenters). Wren’s reach as England’s preeminent designer was broad, extending through several generations, and there would have been great interest still in 1730s Britain concerning his preferred tools & methods, even as English architectural tastes were changing markedly.
Chambers — elected F.R.S. in 1729, but connected to the new science circles around Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723) from at least 1714 while apprenticed (1714–21) to the map and globe maker, John Senex — would have been familiar with Wren’s design practices, while Rees (elected F.R.S. in 1786) could have learned this only from research.
When [Chambers] became of a proper age, he was put apprentice to Mr. Senex the Globe-Maker, a business which is connected with Literature, and especially with Astronomy and Geography. It was during Mr. Chambers’s residence with this skilful mechanic, that he contracted that taste for science and learning which accompanied him through life, and directed all his pursuits. It was even at this time that he formed the design of his grand work, the Cyclopaedia; and some of the first articles of it were written behind the counter. Having conceived the idea of so great an undertaking, he justly concluded that the execution of it would not consist with the avocations of trade; and, therefore, he quitted Mr. Senex, and took Chambers at Gray’s-Inn, where he chiefly resided during the rest of his days. The first edition of the Cyclopaedia, which was the result of many years intense application, appeared in 1728, in two volumes, folio. It was published by subscription, the price being four guineas, and the list of subscribers was very respectable....
(Biographia Britannica, 2nd edn., 1784, iii. 424)
Moreover, Chambers would have had personal experience with the design technologies he described (while serving his apprenticeship with Senex), leading to such authoritative claims as “This Method is very good, easy, and exact; and deserves to be more used by Painters” (from Chambers’ Cyclopædia article on Designing). And Chambers’ first-hand knowledge of best practices in the late-17th- and early-18th-century design communities helps explain why he (rather than Rees) singled out certain technologies, such as Wren’s well-regarded perspectograph, for inclusion in his Cyclopædia, or, an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences ... Compiled from the Best Authors, Dictionaries, Journals, Memoirs, Transactions, Ephemerides, &c.
Despite our tendency to lump together all early-modern technologies under a single concept — the camera obscura, the microscope, the telescope — there was in fact considerable variety in choice and use of tools, then as now, and much debate about the pros and cons attaching to each. Perspective machines, for example, were an ongoing interest of many Royal Society Fellows, who had the usual difference of opinion concerning their overall design. Before Christopher Wren’s apparatus took hold, there was Prince Rupert’s perspective machine, “perfected” (as usual) by Robert Hooke over the course of two months at the end of 1663:
Royal Society Journal book entry for 11 Nov. 1663: “Mr. Hooke suggesting, that additions might be made to the invention of Prince Rupert for casting any platform into perspective, so that it might incline and recline, and be fitted to draw likewise solid bodies in perspective, and to describe all kinds of dials, was desired to bring in these additions in writing, and then to give a description, and to show the practice of the whole. In the meantime it was ordered, that the Prince’s instrument should remain simple, as it was then, without any alteration therein.”
Entry for 18 Nov. 1663: “Mr. Hooke was put in mind to bring to the next meeting his additions to Prince Rupert’s instrument of perspective, and to make a full description of it.”
Entry for 25 Nov. 1663: “Mr. Hooke brought in an account of his additions to Prince Rupert’s perspective engine; and it was ordered, that such an engine should be made for the use of the Society.”
Entry for 2 Dec. 1663: “Mr. Hooke informed the Society, that he had spoken to Mr. Thompson, to make Prince Rupert’s perspective-instrument, together with his additions.”
Entry for 23 Dec. 1663: “Mr. Hooke produced the new perspective engine of Prince Rupert’s invention, together with his own additions, to cast embossed things into perspective, as well as platforms. It was ordered, that this engine be showed to Prince Rupert; but that first two rulers of wood be put in the place of the two threads, that direct the parallelism.”
By the time Chambers compiled his information on available design tools in the 1730s, there was a growing audience for this kind of technological detail. Samuel Pepys, for instance, whose own home entertainment center was fully stocked with all the latest gadgetry, and who enjoyed producing and consuming most all the visual arts, records in his diary having had an influential conversation with Robert Hooke about Christopher Wren’s design apparatus. “Thence with my Lord Bruncker to Gresham College,” writes Pepys in his diary for 21 February 1666,
the first time after the sickness that I was there, and the second time any met. And hear a good lecture of Mr. Hookes about the trade of Felt making, very pretty. And anon alone with me about art of drawing pictures by Prince Roberts [i.e., Prince Rupert] rule and machine, and another of Dr. Wren’s; but he says nothing doth like Squares, or, which is the best in the world, like a darke roome [i.e., a room camera obscura] — which pleased me mightily. Thence with Povy home to my house ....
It was about three years later when Pepys first saw Wren’s “instrument for perspective” while visiting the Secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, on 30 April 1669. (The instrument was still in the Society’s collection a decade later, and was catalogued by Nehemiah Grew as “An Instrument to draw PERSPECTIVE with. Contriv’d by Sir Christopher Wren.” in his Musæum Regalis Societatis [1st edn., 1681, 376].) Pepys was so impressed that he immediately placed an order for one with the instrument-maker, John Brown. Despite his failing eyesight, for which Pepys was seeing “an oldish woman in a hat” (who “hath some water good for the eyes” and “did dress me, making my eyes smart most horribly, and did give me a little glass of it, which I will use and hope it will do me good”), he records being mighty pleased with his new perspective machine when it arrived on 9 May 1669:
... By and by also comes Browne the Mathematical-instrument maker, and brings me home my instrument for Perspective, made according to the description of Dr. Wren’s in the late Transactions, and he hath made it, I think, very well; and that that I believe will do the thing, and therein give me great content, but that I fear all the contents that must be received by my eyes are almost lost. So to the office and there late at business, and then home to supper and to bed.
Pepys had already bought himself a “Paralellogramm” earlier that year (in January 1669), and well before that, “a drawing pen” (in October 1660). He used such design tools in his work, and was a keen critic when it came to performance factors. As regards his paralellogramm, Pepys encountered the usual difficulties breaking in a new technology, noting in his diary on 17 January 1669 that it was “stiff” at first:
... After dinner, Mr. Spong and I to my closet, there to try my instrument Paralellogramm, which doth mighty well, to my full content; but only a little stiff, as being new. Thence, taking leave of my guests, he and I and W. Hewer to Whitehall ....
His good friend, Mr. Spong, arranged to have the instrument fixed for him, and Pepys gives an interesting account of the collaborative nature of his design activities on 4 February 1669:
Up and at the office all the morning. At noon, home with my people to dinner; and then after dinner comes Mr. Spong to see me, and brings me my parrallogram in better order then before, and two or three drafts of the port of Brest, to my great content: and I did call Mr. Gibson to take notice of it, who is very much pleased therewith. And it seems this is not, as Mr. Sheres would the other day have persuaded me, the same as a Protractor — which doth so much the more make me value it; but of itself it is a most useful instrument. Thence out with my wife and him, and carried him to a instrument-maker’s shop in Chancery lane that was once a prentice of Greatorex’s, but the master was not within; and there he showed me a paralellogram in brass, which I like so well that I will buy, and, therefore bid it be made clean and fit for me. And so to my cousin Turner’s ....
Then, as now, people like Pepys desired to work with the best tools available.
Chambers’ two-volume Cyclopædia was itself a good example of the best commercial design practices of his day, with its two-color title page, handsome typesetting and dual-column layout, plentiful tables and diagrams, and 20 original plates (which included detailed pictorial descriptions of 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). True to the age’s preference for a dialectical interplay of visual and verbal language — e.g., the renowned art critic, Roland Fréart (whom Chambers cites in his Cyclopædia), described pictures as “mute Poesie” and poetry as “vocal Painting” in his 1662 Idée de la perfection de la peinture — Chambers’ Cyclopædia opened with an emblematic frontispiece (see related Gallery exhibit), which managed to communicate the essence of his encyclopedic survey in expressive visual terms. Lois Potter refers to this as “the two-way encoding of words and images,” and Baroque artists were unsurpassed masters at it, drawing on a common heritage of visual and verbal forms to advantage.
NOTE: The digital edition of Chambers’ text (in Part II) has not yet been updated. It retains the original format and styling of an earlier reissue of the HTML transcript in September 2009. To learn more about 2012 changes to e-publication formats, visit She-philosopher.com’s “A Note on Site Design” page.
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