Britannica’s CD-ROM Is Fun, But It Could Use Some Nonsense

The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD-98 , CD-ROM edition. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.

The news is almost too good to be true: The Encyclopaedia Britannica -all 32 volumes-costs $125. Knowledge is power; ignorance is death.

The new Britannica is on CD-ROM and wants 32 megs of RAM, which, if you bought your machine more than a year ago, you probably don’t have. But what the hey, you can pick up a computer for about $1,000, install the Britannica and still come out ahead. The books alone cost $1,500 even today, and that’s without search engines or multimedia. This software is a cinch to figure out and a joy to use. If you click at the bottom of Britannica CD-98′ s map of Gettysburg, the Union and Confederate lines-represented by bars of red and blue-jockey with each other for position, while the story of the three-day battle is read aloud.

Two clicks away, you’ll find George E. Pickett’s bitter letter to his fiancée. “Even now I can hear them cheering as I gave the order, ‘Forward!'” If your tastes are more literary than dramatic, you can read a gorgeous excerpt on the same charge by William Faulkner from Intruder in the Dust .

There are three disks all together, one for installation and the other two to shuffle as you hunt your facts. All 44 million words, all 72,000 articles, are on each disk, so the shuffling is kept to a minimum. The basic requirement is actually 16 megs of RAM, but since the SVGA monitor display card must be set at 800×600, and 45 megs of hard-disk space are needed, that makes a high-end machine inevitable. A new release of the text-only single-disk version for Macintosh and more primitive PC’s is expected in February.

We had the 11th edition when I was growing up. My mother inherited the books from my great-grandfather Thomas A. Watson. He’s known for having helped Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone. “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you,” he said, according to the Britannica . My sister says that’s nonsense and that Grandpa made the story up after Bell died and nobody could refute it.

“Just the facts,” my 11-year-old said when I offered to use the new device to help him with a report on prisons in Victorian England. He knows what his father likes: nonsense, high-end nonsense. Thomas A. Watson’s set of encyclopedias has a touch of high-end nonsense. It is dedicated “By permission to His Majesty George the Fifth/ King of Great Britain and Ireland/ and of the British Dominions Beyond the Seas/ Emperor of India/ and to William Howard Taft/ President of the United States of America.”

Emperor of India indeed. The Britannica was already more than 140 years old when that edition came out in 1910. The first Britannica , issued in weekly numbers starting in 1768, omitted the whole field of history and biography as beneath the dignity of encyclopedias. When the organization determined to foul itself with such base concerns, according to the preface to the 11th, one editor left and was replaced with James Tytler, the famous Scottish aeronaut.

Not knowing exactly what an aeronaut was, I looked it up. “Aeronautics, the art of ‘navigating’ the ‘air.’ It is divisible into two main branches- aerostation , dealing properly with machines that, like balloons, are lighter than the air, and aviation , dealing with the problem of artificial flight by means of flying machines which, like birds, are heavier than the air, and also with attempts to fly made by human beings by the aid of artificial wings fitted to their limbs.”

There are many stories of men who attempted to fly. “John Wilkins (1614-1672), one of the founders of the Royal Society and bishop of Chester … in 1640 discussed the possibility of reaching the moon by volitation.” He reports in his Mathematical Magick (1648) of a “‘certain English monk called Elmerus,’ … [who] flew from a town in Spain for a distance of more than a furlong; and that other persons had flown from St. Mark’s, Venice, and at Nuremberg. Giovanni Battista Dante of Perugia is said to have flown several times across Lake Trasimene.”

What I want to know is: Was the man of God wearing one of those robes and if so, did he hold it closed with one hand while flapping with the other?

“At the beginning of the 16th century,” the Britannica continues, “an Italian alchemist … undertook to fly from the walls of Stirling Castle [in Scotland] through the air to France. But … soon came to the ground and broke his thigh-bone in the fall-an accident which he explained by asserting that the wings he employed contained some fowls’ feathers, which had an ‘affinity’ for the dung-hill, whereas if they had been composed solely of eagles’ feathers, they would have been attracted to the air.”

The contributors to the famous 11th edition, which published Sigmund Freud and Marie Curie, were obviously given more leeway than today’s writers. Writers are less important altogether these days, what with the great pictures, and in a society that values objective facts above all else. Men given leeway make mistakes. They leap off the walls of castles. They guess. Apparently, one of the earliest editions wasn’t exactly certain if California was part of the continent or if it was an island. And now that I’ve written it down, I can easily understand his confusion.

But writers given leeway also have fun. When discussing ballooning, the contributor of the section on Aeronautics reports that one of the early theories was that hen’s eggs filled with dew would lift a man since the dew, shed by the stars at night, would be drawn to the sun during the day.

There seems to be a good deal of nonsense missing from the CD-ROM version. Honoré de Balzac is not down for having died of caffeine poisoning, for instance, although I have “known” this for years. And also that a shark was sliced open once somewhere in the world, and they found a suit of armor in its gut. But when I put “Armor” and “Shark” into the marvelously efficient search engine, I came up with a handful of dew. Giovanni Battista Dante of Perugia also got no hits. Is this because he never actually left the ground? Or did his robe flap open, and all these years later we’re still embarrassed?

A lot of this is good news, of course. Nonsense can be fun, but it can also be deadly. I suppose I’d be more comforted if I felt that we were more exact in the honor we paid to science. My 11-year-old wants only the facts, but he also has a keen interest in aliens. The X-Files is one of his favorite shows. Last year, a lecturer came to his private school and told the assembled students that many significant inventions attributed to white men were actually made by blacks to whom the credit had been denied. Thomas A. Watson, he told my son, was a black man and he, not Bell, invented the telephone.

I hope that years from now, we can look back on this sort of foolishness for what it is: another flying monk. The truth is devilishly hard to peg down in any time and in any medium.

Britannica’s CD-ROM Is Fun, But It Could Use Some Nonsense