A Mechanical Dictionary

THERE is a curious interest nowadays in watching the efforts of the compilers of popular manuals, digests, and dictionaries to keep up with the pace of scholarship and invention. Philosophers, historians, inventors, hurry forward their discoveries and contrivances, and the makers of text-books toil after them. The race between the things we have to learn and the means by which we have to learn them is almost as close as that between heavy guns and iron-clad vessels. When the recorder has laboriously brought up his work, as he thinks, to the latest point of scientific attainment, the savant announces a new theory or a new series of facts, and text-books and compendiums, suddenly become obsolete, must be revised to meet a new standard. Or if the theorist and discoverer pause after some notable advance to take breath or to look for a new lead, behold, their latest acquisition is already popularized in the lyceum lecture or magazine, their last invention in a scientific record or dictionary. Meanwhile the public struggles hard to keep up with the movement. We are all expected to be more or less au courant with whatever is doing in science, literature, and art. We are not required to know it, but we must know about it. Countless lectures, periodicals, — general and technical, — compendiums and text-books are addressed, not as formerly, each to its own select audience of specially interested persons, but to everybody. We are all expected to take an interest in everything, as far as may be an intelligent interest, and to this end we must take in what we can hold of the knowledge that is heaped up for us in every subject of human study. What we cannot hold must still be at hand, laid away in some form in which we can easily seize it and in a place where we can at once find it. Individually we may disapprove of this effort to dabble in so much knowledge, which after all has tor most of us little to do with real acquisition; but we cannot help it. It is forced upon us by the habit of the world, by what is expected of us, and by the fact that to keep up intelligent intercourse with each other, or to have intelligent conceptions of the things by which we are surrounded,— the things which occupy our neighbors, the things which we use and see every day, — we must learn the main facts and relations of a far greater variety of subjects than we can in any wise master.

Hence comes the need of an immense amount of work in condensing and arranging for the access of the many the accumulations of the few, work of which a great part is very ill done, but which is now as imperatively demanded as the work of original study, and at present probably employs as many hands and as much labor. The more the store of knowledge accumulates, the farther the act of condensation must be carried, till the innumerable facts to which the daily reader has to recur have been set forth in the most condensed form that they will admit of. For as art grows longer, time grows shorter. Not only have we a great deal more than our grandfathers to learn, or at least to take note of, but the hurry of our day compels us to do it at a much more rapid pace. A century and a half ago, when his contemporary, Leibnitz, had exhausted the whole cycle of human learning by study of its original sources, there was some severity in Pope’s sarcasm, —

“ Index-learning turns no student pale,
Yet holds the eel of science by the tail.”

Now we may shrug our shoulders and take it without wincing. Any one who wishes to keep at once his color and his place in cultivated intercourse, and to follow any specialty besides, is likely to find that for common uses index-learning is his only wear. He knows that index knowledge is very different from mastery; but he knows that he must have general ideas about a great many things that he cannot master, and that he may at any time want to have recourse to a great many facts about such things. He makes it a point, then, if he is a scholarly man, that the nucleus of his library shall be of what are called books of reference; that is to say, in reality, of indexes. If he is not scholarly, but an active - minded man of ordinary attainments, it is likely that the books of reference will be pretty much all his library. In his own domain, the special student finds it important to have books which may rank as indexes, showing comprehensively the chief points of his study in their order and relations, and pointing him at once to the source to which to trace any detail he may be in search of, and so relieving him of the necessity of burdening his memory with a multitude of subordinate facts until they come to have their true significance for him, when they will he easily on it. Even the finished expert cannot afford to turn his back when be finds a really good index of his own study at his hand, to stimulate a memory that will sometimes flag, to save time at need by facilitating a quick review, or by tracing a remembered fact to its forgotten source.

But if indexes are become so essential, it is all-important that they should be made as well as can be, and by people who are well up to their work. This is not so simple a matter as it may seem. To make a good digest or cyclopædia or dictionary — all these are only indexes in the larger sense — requires peculiar skill and unusual knowledge. A clever writer in The Saturday Review counted lately two things among the hardest of human undertakings, which everybody thinks he can do: one, to make a translation; the other, to make an index. To index well even a book of any value is a task of considerable difficulty, requiring much judgment and thorough knowledge of the subject of the book; the difficulty of making a good index of the larger kind may be instanced by the fact that for all the labor that has been spent in efforts, a thoroughly good dietionary of the English language has never yet been made.

It is worth while here to note the difference between an encyclopædia and a dictionary, both indexes of the widest range. An encyclopædia is not a larger dictionary and a dictionary a smaller encyclopedia. It is true that as they are executed they verge upon each other, and the names are applied with more or less confusion; but their original ideas differ more in kind than in compass. An encyclopædia is a condensed account, as complete as may be, of the whole field of human knowledge, or of a particular section of it, arranged indexically, and in most cases alphabetically, for the sake of reference, each subject being treated consecutively, with all its particulars under one head, or at most under few. Such a work, if of great extent, absolutely requires a sub-index of its own. The grouping of details under topics, while it is of great advantage to one who consults the work with reference to a subject of any complexity, makes it, troublesome to find such small particulars as come in question from moment to moment in conversation or in thought, unless there is some finger-post to point the way to them. The encyclopædia of this typical kind which is best known among us is perhaps the Encyclopædia Britannica; any one who is acquainted with it knows how necessary the index is in consulting it. Other encyclopædias are still more characteristic examples, as the French Encyclopédic Méthodique or the more technical Encyclopédie Roret. A dictionary pure and simple, on the other hand, distributes every detail which it includes into alphabetical order, subdividing things as much as possible and leaving each item to stand by itself, and necessarily with no means of classification whatever. There is no coherence, but only chance juxtaposition. Practically there are few encyclopaedias which do not more or less conform to the standard of the dictionary by introducing in alphabetical order the most important details of their several topics and referring them to their appropriate heads; and there are many dictionaries which aim at supplying more or less the uses of encyclopædias, perhaps call themselves such, treating comprehensive subjects at some little length, and referring their details to them. Yet the distinction remains, and is real.

There is of course a corresponding difference in the uses of encyclopædias and dictionaries. The first, are the ready resource when one wishes to look up a subject and get a comprehensive idea of its aspects and connections, to find how to follow it farther and learn the sources of its knowledge. We turn to the second when we want a quick answer to some question of detail. The man of leisure or of studious bent will recur oftenest to his encyclopædia, because when he wants to examine a particular point, he wishes also to know its relations, and is or should be careful in his loosest and slightest studies to keep a thread of connection and system in all he knows. The man of affairs will go more to his dictionary, because he wants an answer to his immediate question in the shortest, form and will not give his time to tracing out its connections. Thus if the encyclopædia commands more of the attention of the studious man, the dictionary will probably have two to one in its favor for popular use. The natural result of the growing tendency to general and discursive study or reading, and the popular desire to get at the surface information of a great variety of branches of knowledge, is a steady and increasing demand for encyclopædias and diction-, aries of all kinds, general arid special. The busy preoccupation of our day, the haste of people to get at the particular thing they want, make the dictionary form of index more and more popular. The cyclopædias, especially the more popular ones, such as Chambers’s and Appleton’s, for example, are gradually approximating to this form by their subdivision of topics and filling in as much as possible of their detail in cross reference. The Conversations-Lexicon of Brockhaus, the most popular of German encyclopædias, which was first published in 1812, and has gone through many editions since, pointed the way to this adaptation. It has been the exemplar of the two works we have just cited, and of others in England and the United States. It is natural that Americans, with their discursive habits in education, their unruly curiosity on all sorts of subjects, and their hasty ways, should addiet themselves especially to dictionaries. Among the logical and orderly French, on the other hand, the preference has been for the more systematic form, though of late years the publication of a Dictionnaire de la Conversation et de la Lecture, aud of a great many technical dictionaries, attest among them, too, a growing tendency to the disintegration of encyclopædias.

The scholar secs with regret the apparent substitution of discursive and superficial education for systematic and thorough, forgetting perhaps how often it is really the substitute, and apparently the only practicable one, for no education at all; and be looks with tio great favor on the whole apparatus of popularized learning. The prevailing movement, however, like all the great collective movements of civilized men, is too important and significant to be disposed of in a breath. It has its disadvantages and its advantages, which it is outside our present purpose to discuss. The movement exists, and it cannot, be doubted that the rapid advance of the leaders in discovery and invention, whether they are aware of it or not, is enormously accelerated by the stimulating pursuit of the desultory crowd that straggles after them. So it always has been in the great ages of the world’s progress in all its walks, and so it probably always will be. How the race between the teachers and the popularizers will end, whether the field will grow so wide and the course so long that the followers will give up in despair, leaving the leaders to continue alone, cannot be foreseen

Some departments of knowledge lend themselves to the dictionary form, while others invite a cyclopedic treatment. Scientific subjects, for instance, require a consecutive treatment. Literary, statistical, and technological matters are better suited to endure, if necessary, a minutely indcxical handling. But the maker of a good dictionary on whatever subject must be a person thoroughly acquainted with that subject. It is not a work to be entrusted to the first comer, He must be in the first place a man of systematic mind, able to analyze and to combine his material, with skill in arrangement and classification, and capacity to distinguish between what is essential or non-essential, important or insignificant. He must have the power of precise and condensed statement, a sense of proportion, and be able to carry a multitude of details in his mind and shape them into a consistent whole. He must have long experience and a keen judgment, hot only of what ought to be known but of what people are likely to want to know, — a judicial habit of balancing authorities and weighing evidence. When to these endowments is added special erudition in one branch of knowledge, or in several, we have a combination of qualifications which few men possess. In the mere judgment of what should be included in a dictionary and what left out we often find the makers singularly at fault. For example, we remember seeing in a popular English dictionary a pronouncing list of Scripture proper names, in which, it was said, all were included except a small number which were only once mentioned in the Bible, or at most but very few times. Now it is likely that a good many copies of the dictionary will be worn out before anybody resorts to it to learn the pronunciation of Joseph or John, but the reader who chance, on a name that is mentioned but once in the Bible may very probably not have learned its pronunciation, and may come to the dictionary only to be disappointed in his reasonable hope of finding it. It. is not for their familiarity but for their rarity that people look up things in dictionaries. Again, the things that are most likely to escape the memory, or to need clearing up when we find them noticed, are not leading facts but minor ones. The former ought, naturally to be given; as many as possible of the latter should be included. But the more important may often be stated in as brief form as the less; and so the rules of proportion that control the treatment of other literary work are very much modified in dictionary-making, and complexity, not importance, becomes the measure of amplification. A dictionary should contain, then, as many particulars as possible, its limits being determined only by the consideration of its bulk and cost, and nothing that pertains to its subject is to be considered an impertinence in it unless it occupies the place of something more desirable. But because an exhaustive treatment of almost any branch of knowledge in its present condition is impracticable, and a great amount of detail must therefore always be omitted, it becomes at once an imperative and a difficult matter to decide what people will most want to find in a book of reference. Allowing due room for the scope of special knowledge and systematic arrangement, there will always remain a wide border-land for the exercise of common sense and experience. No wonder, then, that the making of dictionaries is a precarious undertaking, that the only real and satisfactory test of their serviceableness is experience, that those prove commonly the best which grow by successive accretion and bv the overhauling of successive compilers.

Knight’s Mechanical Dictionary is uncompromisingly a dictionary. It is compiled with the intention of making it a book of ready reference. Hence every item is treated as a separate heading in its proper alphabetical order, and the principle of subdivision is carried out as minutely as possible, so that every detail for which it is consulted may be found with the least effort and delay. The subject of the work lends itself more kindly than many to this treatment. It is not a dictionary of mechanics, that is to say, not a compendium of the laws of physical forces and their applications to mechanism. If it were this, it would have been impossible to execute it satisfactorily without letting the systematic treatment encroach upon the alphabetical, and giving it more or less the character of an encyclopædia, since the intelligent statement of the laws of force requires grouping and connected explanation. Its title seems intended to set forth the fact that it is rather a synopsis or index of mechanical appliances. Being this, it might invite but docs not require a systematic arrangement, and for easy practical reference it is undoubtedly best as it is, in rigorously alphabetical subdivision. Besides this, it is a point of considerable importance, in a work which it may reasonably be hoped will be a permanent record, that it shall be possible in successive editions to keep it up with the progress of the mechanic arts, and there is obviously no form which allows of interpolations and changes here and there with so little disturbance of its general mass as that of a dictionary.

Nevertheless, the author has made an effort to give as far as possible the advantages of an encyclopædia to those who wish to examine a subject in extenso, by making for each craft or manufacture a special index, which appears under the appropriate heading in alphabetical order and includes the various appliances and processes which are peculiar to the craft. Thus the book is sown with sub-indexes, and the headings under which these are given are themselves grouped into a synopsis at the beginning of the work; and every word in the body of the book which is included under one or other of them bears a reference to the caption under which the index itself is to be found. This system is the feature which most distinguishes the work from others of its class, and it gives it a decided advantage over any other that we have seen. A person who wishes to trace out the mechanical appliances that belong to any subject can, by looking over the list of index topics in the beginning, select the one that suits his purpose, and turning to the appropriate index get, by following out the references to the articles included under it, an idea of all that the book contains on that subject. Or if he turns first to any one of the particular terms which are comprised in the index, he is there referred hack to it, and so given his starting point for the rest. This enables him to cover his ground with a moderate amount of labor, and is perhaps as fair a substitute as could well bo supplied for the advantage of a systematized cyclopædia; it cannot of course afford the same facilities for systematic consultation, but it leaves the peculiar serviceableness of the dictionary unimpaired.

The amount of labor that has been devoted to this part of the work is suggested by the fact that in the synopsis are more than one hundred and fifty indexes, and under them are arranged about fifteen hundred titles. The index of agricultural implements alone contains very nearly five hundred names. The classification of such a mass of material is no easy matter. A great many of the articles will class themselves naturally enough, but a great many will have characteristics which leave room for question, and require a simultaneous consideration of the whole body of topics to determine by what analogies they can be most clearly grouped, and where the line can best be drawn between comprehensiveness and specialism. There will be many particulars of doubtful relationship, and many which belong equally to two or three families. This will lead to assigning them to more than one index, and where to stop in this will be a question between clearness and compression. It is likely that no two men would be found to adopt exactly the same classification, and therefore that any one who examines the work will find some things that he would have classified differently. It is, however, not so important exactly what system is adopted as that it should be a system which is well suited to the whole field it covers, and to which the reader can easily seize the clew, and that it should he consistently carried out, without either too great diffuseness or too great conciseness. In the book before us, so far as we can see, it is done on the whole with excellent judgment. The author’s procedure is very systematic and consistent. The plan adopted is based on distinctions purely mechanical, relating rather to mechanism than to the abstract principles of mechanics, and is executed with unwavering and sometimes rather autocratic rigor, though the articles of double or doubtful relationship are guarded by a good number of cross references. The resolution to limit the number of categories and at the same time to make the system comprehensive leads, once in a while, to results which take the reader a little by surprise, as, for instance, when he finds the ballotbox included among calculating and measuring implements. That the ballot-box has occasionally been used in elections as a calculating implement, and with considerable precision, cannot be disputed, but one would hardly have looked for it in the list. Nevertheless, we think the classification will hold. Again, it is with a slight sense of the unexpected that one finds “ pile-driver,” “ pile-carpet ” or Wilton carpet, and “ Voltaic-pile,” all indexed together under the heading of Piles.

Such a work as this is baffling to the general reviewer. He is diverted at every turning of a leaf from the object he has in his mind by the amount of interesting matter that meets his eye. The exhaustive treatment is evidently out of the question for him. The scope of the dictionary is wider than might perhaps be expected from its title. For not only do all the manufactures and industrial arts have their mechanism, but every science has its apparatus, and every human occupation its tools, to all of which the dictionary is meant to serve, as far as may be, for an index. Thus, to take a few examples at random, under the head of Metal Working we find indexed more than three hundred appliances and terms; under Fine Arts, more than a hundred and fifty; of Optical Instruments, a hundred and seventy; various kinds of Meters (the thermometer, hydrometer, etc.), more than two hundred; Domestic Appliances, a hundred and eighty, from an almondpeeler, or a baby-walker, to a steamcooking apparatus. Of Musical Instruments, a hundred and seventy are described; under the heads of Joint and Saw are given, respectively, eighty and one hundred and sixty forms. If we look over the enormous mass of detail included in these three quarto volumes, it is easy to believe that to accumulate the material digested in the twenty thousand subjects they are said to comprise has occupied a large part of the author’s time for twenty-five years, as wc are told, and that eight of those years have been spent in directly preparing the work for the press. In the compilation of such a work the limit must be an arbitrary one, for there is no natural limit: the field of human industry is practically boundless, and its appliances uncounted. The individual reader will perhaps wonder why room is given to this or that matter, which appears to him insignificant, or why a greater importance is not given in the general scheme to his own specialty, and he will probably look now and then for something that he will not find; but for the whole body of readers we should judge that the range of the book was as wide, and its apportionment as judicious, as could well be demanded. Certainly it is altogether more comprehensive than any similar manual, English or American, that has come under our notice.

Of the execution of such a work it is not safe to speak with too much assurance; excepting that if it were badly done it would not be difficult to find it out. To test its value and accuracy throughout would require the prolonged examination of a considerable number of specialists, or from an individual an amount of labor only second to that of making a dictionary for himself. But so far as a pretty careful inspection goes, the work sustains itself excellently. Its strongest point is naturally in technology, — the appliances and processes of the industrial arts. For this the long experience of the author in the United States Patent Office gave him peculiar advantages. It is inevitable, and for its use probably desirable, that American machines, tools, and processes should fill a much larger part of it than foreign, although there is abundant evidence of careful study of foreign technology. There is evidence, too, of a very full and apparently accurate acquaintance with the technical terms and processes of the various mechanical trades. A cardinal virtue in such a work, and one much rarer with dictionary makers than it ought to be, is the author’s faculty of clear, condensed statement. The descriptions of machines and tools are commonly models of precision, directness, and clearness, without a word wasted. Two characteristics impress themselves strongly on the reader who examines the book: first, the practical straightforwardness of its whole treatment, its freedom from diffuseness or attempt at display, the skill it shows in seizing the essential points of its subject and setting them before him; second, the noticeable unity of the whole work, which has the air of having been wrought in almost every particular by the same hand. The matter shows evidence of being carefully kept in hand to the last, the latest volume (for they were published successively) being brought well up to date in respect of recent inventions and discoveries. On the other hand, the author’s desire for freshness and conciseness has not led him altogether to neglect matters of historical or even literary interest which concern his subject, and the reader will find the history of the most important inventions sufficiently told, and occasionally enlivened, as where the account of the Siren is illustrated by a quotation from Pepys, quaintly expressing his incredulity at being told that the rapidity of motion of a fly’s wing could be computed from the pitch of its hum.

A point which deserves notice is the good judgment which Mr. Knight has shown in selecting the machines which he illustrates in each department of mechanism, seldom, it would seem, occupying his pages with inventions of questionable merit, or with those that have become obsolete, except as they are of value in illustrating the history of invention. The same practical sense is shown in the management of the illustrations, of which there are some seventy-five hundred. These are wood-cuts, very well executed, chosen with no attempt at picture making, but admirably clear diagrams or representations, showing their purpose with great distinctness and unencumbered with useless detail. A few only of the full-page illustrations make greater pretense and have less justification for their presence. Another excellence is the citation of authorities, which might, we think, have been carried farther with advantage.

As the author gets away from the central range of his subject his grasp relaxes a little, his hold on his matter is less careful, and his information has more the air of being at second hand. Thus, we notice the absence of certain scientific instruments which we should have expected to see included, and though his scientific statements are usually clear and well up to the mark, there are occasional lapses. As an instance we notice that in describing the action of the prism he adheres to the old-fashioned theory that the primary colors are red, blue, and yellow, ignoring the recent investigations of the German physicists, which have settled it that the primaries are red, green, and purple. So, too, concerning such outlying matters as musical instruments or building construction we find now and then a slip, or a statement that is evidently taken without sufficient examination from some other work. Once in a while the author’s habit of directness in putting things leads him to a naïve decisiveness in matters that are only historic probabilities or matters of opinion, as where we find him saying of the tomb of Atreus at Mycenæ that “ the soffit of each course was then cut to the required angle with its bed by means of a templet ” and giving a diagram of the templet; or of the American railway ear that it “excites the admiration of the average Briton, and will yet be the favorite form of car the world over.”

These, however, are minor faults; that such a work should be altogether free from them is not to be hoped. To have completed it on so comprehensive a scheme and with such excellence of execution and general accuracy as has apparently been attained in it is for a single writer a remarkable achievement. Its permanent value can be established only by its continued use. But it appears to have the advantage in range and serviceableness over all its competitors. Of making such a book there is no end. The progress of discovery and invention will require it to be revised and enlarged from time, to time, but its form and arrangement make it peculiarly apt for that sort of treatment. Having well occupied its ground it may be expected to keep it. The habit of the time makes such a work more and more necessary. We may look to see it take its place on the shelves of libraries, public and private, beside the hale and venerable works of Ure and Braude, whose pages supplement its own, and share their vigorous longevity.

  1. Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary. A Description of Tools, Instruments, Machines, Processes, and Engineering; History of Inventions; General Technological Vocabulary ; and Digest of Mechanical Appliances in Science and the Arts. By EDWARD H. KNIGHT, Civil and Mechanical Engineer, etc. Illustrated with upwards of Six Thousand Engravings. New York: Published by Hurd and Houghton. Cambridge : The Riverside Press. 1877. Three vols.