Ephraim Chambers’s dense and richly illustrated Cyclopaedia was first published in 1728 and subsequently reprinted several times during the 18th century. The two volumes cover an astonishing array of subjects, laid out in an alphabetical format familiar to us today. The text is one of the finest examples of the encyclopaedias, grammars and dictionaries, which became something of a craze among readers in this period. Books such as this were essentially driven by the 18th-century impulse to demystify and understand the world in scientific and empirical terms: all part of the wider pursuit of knowledge encapsulated by the Enlightenment.
Chambers offered the reading public a quick reference guide to a wide range of topics, including science, engineering, the arts, linguistics and the law. Although it is expert and authoritative in most areas, some entries in the Cyclopedia are cursory and general, demonstrating the natural limitations of the author’s own personal knowledge.
Perhaps the most remarkable elements of this edition are the meticulous fold-out engravings that accompany specific entries. Witness, for example, the carefully labelled illustrations of anatomised human bodies, the breath-taking detail of a battleship, shown in cross-section, and the font samples given by the famous London type-founder William Caslon.
Signs of Laurence Sterne’s familiarity with the Cyclopaedia are evident throughout Tristram Shandy, and it is likely that he owned a copy of the work and drew literary inspiration from it. Sterne’s almost obsessive discussion of military fortifications and sieges, for example, appears to have been directly lifted from Chambers’s volumes, rather than gleaned from his professional knowledge of the subject. Likewise, Sterne touches on the 18th-century debates relating to procreation and the location of a genetic blueprint: a debate covered in the entry for the foetus in the Cyclopaedia, which Chambers considered a ‘matter of great controversy’. Even Chambers’s definition for the human nose reappears in Tristram Shandy, where Walter Shandy suggests that nose size is a determiner of personal achievement!