Chambers, Ephraim

, author of the scientific dictionary which goes under his name, was born at Kendal in the county of Westmorland, the youngest of three brothers. His parents were dissenters of the presbyterian persuasion; and not quakers, as has been reported; and their occupation was that of farming. He was sent early to Kendal school, where he received a good classical education. But his father, who had already placed his eldest son at Oxford, and could not afford the same expence a second time, determined to bring up Ephraim to trade. He was accordingly, at a proper age, sent to London, and spent some time in the shop of a mechanic in that city; but, having an aversion to the business, he tried another, to which he was equally averse, and was at last 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, and in which his master very liberally encouraged him. 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 “Cyclopædia,” which was | the result of many years intense application, appeared in. 1728, in 2 vols. folio. It was published by subscription, the price being 4l. 4s.; and the list of subscribers was very numerous. The dedication, to the king, is dated Oct. 15, 1727. The reputation that Mr. Chambers acquired by his execution of this undertaking, procured him the honour of being elected F. R. S. Nov. 6, 1729. In less than ten years’ time, a second edition became necessary; which accordingly was printed, with corrections and additions, in 1738*. It having been intended, at first, to give a new work instead of a new edition, Mr. Chambers had prepared a considerable part of the copy with that view, and more than twenty sheets were actually printed off. The purpose of the proprietors, according to this plan, was to have published a volume in the winter of 1737, and to have proceeded annually in supplying an additional volume, till the whole was completed. But from this design they were diverted, by the alarm they took at an act then agitated in parliament, in which a clause was contained, obliging the publishers of all improved editions of books to print the improvements separately. The bill, which carried in it the appearance of equity, but which, perhaps, might have created greater obstructions to the cause of literature than a transient view of it could suggest, passed the house of commons, but was rejected in the house of lords. In an advertisement prefixed to the second edition of the “Cyclopaedia,” Mr. Chambers endeavoured to obviate the complaints of such readers as might have been led to expect (from a paper of his published some time before) a newwork, instead of a new edition. So favourable was the public reception of the second edition of Chambers’s dictionary, that a third was called for in the very next year, 1739; a fourth two years afterwards, in 1741; and a fifth in 1746. This rapid sale of so large and expensive a work, is not easily to be paralleled in the history of literature: and must be considered, not only as a striking testimony


Some years afterwards, when he was in France for the recovery of his health, he received an intimation, that if he would publish a new edition there, and dedicate it to Lewis XV. he would be liberally rewarded; but these proposals, says our informant, his British fceart received wiih disdain, and he re jected the teaming solicitation of men who were provoking him to a sordid retractation of the compliments be had paid to his lawful sovereign. —Gent. Mag. vol. LV. p. 671, an article from which we have been enabled to correct and improve the account formerly given of Mr. Chambers.

| of the general estimation in which it is held, but likewise as a strong proof of its real utility and merit.

Although the “Cyclopædia” was the grand business of Mr. Chambers’s life, and may be regarded as almost the sole foundation of his fame, his attention was not wholly confined to this undertaking. He was concerned in a periodical publication entitled “The Literary Magazine,” which was begun in 1735, and continued for a few years, containing a review of books on the analytical plan. In this work he wrote a variety of articles, and particularly a review of Morgan’s “Moral Philosopher.” He was engaged likewise, in conjunction with Mr. John Marty n, F. R. S. and professor of botany at Cambridge, in preparing for the press a translation and abridgment of the “Philosophical history and memoirs of the royal academy of sciences at Paris or an abridgment of all the papers relating to natural philosophy which have been published by the members of that illustrious society.” This undertaking, when completed, was comprised in five volumes, 8vo, which did not appear till 1742, some time after our author’s decease, when they were published in the joint names of Mr. Martyn and Mr. Chambers. Mr. Marty n, in a subsequent publication, passed a severe censure upon the share which his fellow-labourer had in the abridgment of the Parisian papers; which, indeed, he appears to have executed in a very slovenly manner, and to have been unacquainted with the French terms in natural history. The only work besides, that we find ascribed to Mr. Chambers, is a translation of the “Jesuit’s Perspective,” from the French; which was printed in 4to, and has gone through several editions. How indefatigable he was in his literary and scientific collections, is manifest from a circumstance which used to be related by Mr. Airey, who was so well known to many persons by the vivacity of his temper and conversation, and his bold avowal of the principles of infidelity. This gentleman, in the very early part of his life, was five years (from 1728 to 1733) amanuensis to Mr. Chambers; and, during that time, copied nearly 20 folio volumes, so large as to comprehend materials, if they had been published, for printing 30 volumes in the same size. Mr. Chambers however acknowledged, that if they were printed, they would neither be sold nor read. His close and unremitting attention to his studies at length impaired his health, and obliged him occasionally to take a lodging | at Canonbury-house, Islington. This not having greatly contributed to his recovery, he made an excursion to the south of France, of which he left an account in ms. but did not reap that benefit from the journey which he had himself hoped and his friends wished. Returning to England in the autumn of 1739, he died at Canonbury-house, and was buried at Westminster; where the following inscription, written by himself, is placed on the north side of the cloisters of the abbey:

"Multis pervulgatus,

Faucis notus;

Qui vitam, inter lucem et umbram,

Nee eruditus, nee idiota,

Literis deditus, transegit; sed ut homo

Qui humani nihil a se alienum putat.

Vita simul, et laboribus functus,

Hie requiescere voluit,

Ephraim Chambers, R. S. S.

Obiit xv Maii, MDCCXL."

His writings were those of a man who had a sound judgment, a clear and strong memory, a ready invention, an easy method of arranging his ideas, and who neither spared time nor trouble. His life was spent rather in the company of books than men, and his pen was oftener employed than his tongue: his style is in general good, and his definitions clear and unaffected. In language he applied rather to the judgment than to the ear; and if he deserves to be censured for baldness, it should also be remembered how difficult technical expression is, which must be accommodated at once to the scholar and the artificer. In his epistolary correspondence, some specimens of which may be seen in the Gentleman’s Magazine, he was lively and easy.

His personal character had many peculiarities. What we record with most regret is that his religious sentiments leaned to infidelity, although it has been said in excuse that he avoided propagating his opinions, and certainly did not introduce them in his writings. His mode of life was reserved, for he kept little company, and no table. An intimate friend who called on him one morning, was asked by him to stay and dine. “And what will you give me, Ephraim?” said the gentleman, “I dare engage you have nothing for dinner;” to which Mr. Chambers calmly replied, “Yes, I have a fritter; and if you‘ll stay with me, I’ll have two.” Yet, though thus inattentive to himself, he | was very generous to the poor. He was likewise sufficiently conscious of his defects in social qualities, and when urged to marry that he might then have a person to look after him, which his health required, he replied somewhat hastily, “What! shall 1 make a woman miserable, to contribute to my own ease? For miserable she must be the moment she gives her hand to so unsocial a being as myself.

It has been said in former accounts of Mr. Chambers, that he was not treated in the most liberal manner by the booksellers with whom he was concerned; but this was far from being the case, as he experienced the most generous behaviour from them. It is true that the price of literary labour was not then so high as it has since risen, but he was paid up to the standard of his time. Among his employers Mr. Longman in particular (grand uncle of the present Mr. Longman) used him with great liberality and tenderness; his house was ever open to receive him, and when he was there, every attention was paid to his peculiarities; and during his illness, jellies and other proper refreshments were industriously left for him at those places where it was least likely he should avoid seeing them. When we consider that he was a single man, with few wants and fewer wishes, and that by the assistance of his friends he was enabled to live happily, and die at last possessed of considerable property, he can scarcely be deemed unsuccessful. Every deficiency he supplied by œconomy; and in pecuniary matters he was remarkably exact. In his last will, made not long before his death, and which it has been erroneously said was never proved, he declared that he owed no debts, excepting to his tailor for his rocquelaure.

We have already mentioned that the “Cyclopædia” came to a fifth edition in 1746. After this, whilst a sixth edition was in agitation, the proprietors thought that the work might admit of a supplement, in two additional folio volumes: this supplement, which was published in the joint names of Mr. Scott and Dr. Hill, though containing a number of valuable articles, was far from being uniformly conspicuous for its exact judgment and due selection; a small part only of it being executed by Mr. Scott, and Dr. Hill’s task having been discharged with his usual rapidity. Thus the matter rested for some years, when the proprietors determined to combine the whole into one work; and after several ineffectual efforts for accomplishing their plan, the business devolved on the rev. Dr. Abraham Rees, | F. R. S. who derived from the favour of the public, and the singularly rapid and extensive sale of the work, a recompense, which, independently of every other consideration, he reckoned amply adequate to his labour. This edition began to be published in weekly numbers in 1778, and the publication was continued without a single interruption, till it was completed in the year 1785. The work was dedicated and presented to his majesty. The popularity of the “Cyclopædia” gave rise to a variety of similar publications; of many of which it may be truly said, that most of the articles which compose them, are extracted verbatim, or at least with very few alterations and additions, from this dictionary; and that they manifest very little labour of research, or of compilation. One defect seems to have been common to them all, with hardly any exception; and that is, that they do not furnish the reader witli references to the sources from which their materials are derived, and the authorities upon which they depend. This charge was alleged by the editors of the French Encyclopedic, with some justice, but at the same time with unwarrantable acrimony, against Mr. Chambers. The editors of that work, while they pass high encomiums on Mr. Chambers’s Cyclopædia, blend with them censures that are unfounded. They say, e. g. that the “merited honours it has received would, perhaps, never have been produced at all, if, before it appeared in English, we had not had in our own tongue those works, from which Chambers has drawn without measure, and without selection, the greatest part* of the articles of which his dictionary is composed. This being the case, what must Frenchmen think of a mere translation of that work? It must excite the indignation of the learned, and give just offence to the public, to whom, under a new and pompous title, nothing is presented but riches of which they have a long time been in possession?” They add, however, after appropriate and justly deserved commendation; “We agree with him, that the plan and the design of his dictionary are excellent, and that, if it were executed to a certain degree of perfection, it would alone contribute more to the progress of true science, than one half of the books that are known.” However, what their vanity has led them to assert, viz. that the greatest part of Chambers’s Cyclopædia is compiled from French authors, is not true. When Mr. Chambers engaged in his great undertaking, he extended his researches for materials to | a variety of publications, foreign and domestic, and in the mathematical articles he was peculiarly indebted to Wolfius: and it cannot be questioned, that he availed himself no less of the excellent writers of his native land than those of France. As to the imperfections of which they complain, they were in a great measure removed, as science advanced, by subsequent improvements; nor could the work, in its last state, be considered as the production of a single person. Nevertheless it cannot be conceived, that any scientific dictionary, comprised in four volumes, should attain to the full standard of human wishes and human imagination. The proprietors, duly sensible of this circumstance, and of the rapid progress of literature and science in the period that has elapsed since the publication of Chambers’ s “Cyclopædia,” have undertaken a work on a much larger scale, which, with the encouragement already received and further reasonably expected, will, it is hoped, preclude most of the objections urged against the former dictionary. Of this a very considerable proportion has already been published, and the editor bids fair to accomplish what was once thought impossible. The learned Mr. Bowyer once conceived an extensive idea of improving Chambers’s Cyclopædia, on which his correspondent Mr. Clarke observes, “Your project of improving and correcting Chambers is a very good one; but alas! who can execute it? You should have as many undertakers as professions; nay, perhaps as many antiquaries as there are different branches of ancient learning.” This, in fact, which appeared to Mr. Clarke so impracticable, has been accomplished under Dr. Rees’s management, by combining the talents of, gentlemen who have made the various sciences, arts, &c. their peculiar study. Of the contemporary Cyclopædias, or Encyclopaedias, it may be sufficient to notice in this place, that printed at Edinburgh under the title of “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” the plan of which is different from that of Dr. Rees, but which has been uncommonly successful, a third edition (in twenty vols. 4to) being now in the press; and one begun by Dr. Brewster on a lesser scale, seems to be edited with care and accuracy. 1


Biog. Brit.—Nichols’s Bowyer.—Gent. Mag. see Index, and vol. LVII. p. 314, 381.—Martyn’s Dissertations on the Æneids, Appendix to the Preface, No. 12. Rees’s Cyclopædia.