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Traveling in Time : An 1892 Set of Encyclopedias Portrays a World of Difference

September 03, 1989|JACK SMITH

IN CLEANING OUT our garage once more, I have finally decided to part with a treasure--the 1892 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

It is not quite complete. Two or three volumes are missing. It was given to me by my friend Will Fowler many years ago. I hope he will forgive me for parting with it.

It is almost a shock to thumb through these volumes and see how much the world has changed in almost a century. In 1892, the British Empire sat astride the globe like a sergeant-major, exacting tribute, civilizing savages, keeping the peace. It ruled a third of the earth and had no doubt that it would rule forever.

The Royal Navy is called "the bulwark of the nation, and more important for the defence of the kingdom than its land forces." With unseemly pride, the encyclopedia lists the United Kingdom's ironclad ships of the line, including those with such bellicose names as Devastation, Thunderer, Dreadnought and Inflexible, which surpassed all other ships in armor, having 16 to 18 inches of plate protecting its guns. Although the modern Royal Navy was undoubtedly a factor in frustrating the German Sea Lion plan to invade the Sceptered Isle in World War II, the 1892 edition hadn't a hint of the airplane to come. To its authors, the Battle of Britain in the air was inconceivable.

Although the Wright Brothers' first heavier-than-air flight was only 11 years away, the 23-page article on aerodynamics reviews the history of man's failed attempts at flight, back to antiquity, but is devoted mostly to the past and future of ballooning. As for heavier-than-air flying, it concludes pessimistically: "In all ages . . . great ingenuity has been expended in efforts at flying, all of which have as yet resulted in failure . . . and while navigation is one of the most perfect of the arts, the power of directing a body floating in the air still remains unattained."

Africa, though emerging, is still regarded as the Dark Continent: "This vast continent, though associated from the dawn of civilization with traditions and mysteries of the most stimulating kind, has remained until recently one of the least known, and, both commercially and politically, one of the least important of the great divisions of the globe."

At the end of the article on Africa is a footnote that places it for us in time: "The above article was completed before it was known with certainty that the saddest event in the history of African exploration had occurred. Dr. Livingstone, to whom the article justly assigns 'the first place among African discoverers,' died of dysentery near Lake Bangweolo on the 4th of May, 1873."

I am mystified by the lapse of time between the confirmation of Dr. David Livingstone's death (1874) and the publication of that article (1892). Perhaps it was written for an earlier edition and reprinted intact. So little did the Dark Continent change.

Perhaps nothing in the whole set is more amusing to an Angeleno than the article on Los Angeles. It reads, in part:

"LOS ANGELES, a city of the United States, the capital of Los Angeles County, Calif., is situated in the lowland between the Sierre Madre and the Pacific, about 17 miles from the coast, on the west bank of a stream of its own name. It lies 483 miles by rail south-south-east of San Francisco on the Southern Pacific Railroad, and is connected by branch lines with Wilmington, Santa Monica (both on the coast) and Santa Ana. At the centre of a fine orange and grape growing country, and a resort for invalids, Los Angeles is a place of some importance; and since the opening of the railways it has been in full prosperity. . . . "Founded in 1781 by the Spaniards, it received the name 'Town of the Queen of the Angels' (Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles) as a tribute to the beauty and pleasantness of the spot. It was the capital of the Mexican state of California from 1836 to 1846, in which latter year it was captured by United States forces." I wish I could trade this set in on the 2092 edition. What unimagined wonders might it disclose?

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