Popular Encyclopedia or Conversations Lexicon

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The Popular Encyclopedia; or, Conversations Lexicon was a British encyclopaedia published by Blackie & Son, during the 19th century. It was originally based on the American Conversations Lexicon edition and translation, by Francis Lieber; which in turn was based on the German Conversations Lexicon in its 7th edition.[1][2] The first editions were edited by Alexander Whitelaw, but the 1883 edition was led by Charles Annandale.

The 1836 version of the encyclopaedia was titled:

The Popular Encyclopedia being a general dictionary of arts, sciences, literature, biography, history and political economy. Reprinted from the American edition of the "Conversations Lexicon" with corrections and additions so as to render it suitable for [Britain] and bring it down to the present time. With dissertations On the rise and progress of literature, by Sir D. K. Sandford, D.C.L. M.P., On the progress of science by Thomas Thomson, M.D. F.B.S.L. & E. &c. &c. and On the progress of fine arts by Allan Cunningham, Esq.

An 1841 edition was published in Glasgow, in 7 volumes, royal 8vo, and edited by Alexander Whitelaw.[3] The specific mention that it was originally an updated copy of an American encyclopaedia had been dropped, but the original name had been incorporated into the title:

The Popular Encyclopedia; or, "Conversations Lexicon" being a general dictionary of arts, sciences, literature, biography, history and political economy. With dissertations On the rise and progress of literature, by Sir D. K. Sandford, A.M., Oxon., D.C.L., On the progress of science by Thomas Thomson, M.D. F.B.S.L. & E. &c. &c. and On the progress of fine arts by Allan Cunningham, Esq.

The 1874 edition dropped the dissertations and the double quotes around Conversations Lexicon in the title:

The Popular Encyclopedia; or, Conversations Lexicon. Being a general dictionary arts, sciences, literature, biography, history. New edition with numerous illustrations.

The 1881 edition had a similar title to the 1874 edition:

The Popular Encyclopedia; or, Conversations-Lexicon. Being a general dictionary arts, sciences, literature, biography, history.

All the editions were published by Blackie and Son of London, and the number of volumes went up to fourteen.[4]

The preface to the 1841 edition explained where the Popular Encyclopedia originated and how it differed from other British encyclopaedias:

The Popular Encyclopedia, now submitted to the public in its completed form, is founded on the celebrated German Encyclopedia, known by the name of 'Conversations Lexicon,' which has gone through a number of editions, and of which translations have appeared in almost every European language. Its more immediate basis, however, is the American edition of that work, translated and edited by Dr Francis Lieber, and published at Philadelphia, in thirteen vols. 8vo.

The 'Conversations Lexicon,' originally a publication of comparatively small size and limited scope, has become, in the course of the various translations and editions through which it has passed, greatly enlarged, and is now remarkable, beyond its other excellencies, for the comprehensive character of the information which it embraces. Besides Germany, almost every other continental state of Europe may be said to have contributed to its contents as they now stand; for each translation of the early editions—whether French, Italian, Danish, Swedish, or Dutch—obtained the benefit of such revision, and such additional information regarding individual countries, as natives of the respective countries could alone bestow; and hence the later impressions of the work, taking advantage of these corrections and additions, display an accuracy and minuteness of knowledge on many historical and political points, which might be looked for in vain in any other single publication.

In bringing out an English Encyclopedia, founded on a work possessing so much to recommend it, and which has long enjoyed a European reputation, little fear was entertained as to its favourable reception; and, indeed, the result, in that respect, has already proved highly satisfactory. But much, it was found, remained to be done, in order to render it equal to the wants, and worthy of the patronage, of a British public. Great additions, in particular, required to be made on subjects connected with the history, biography, and topography of this country; and most of the articles in the arts and sciences, with all their accompanying illustrations, required to be wholly supplied. In this way, at least one third of the work may be considered as entirely new, while the rest has undergone such correction and alteration as a careful revision suggested, or the progress of events demanded.

The Popular Encyclopedia, as will be seen from a very slight inspection, partakes more of the character of a General Dictionary, than belongs to the larger Encyclopedias with which this country is familiar. Instead of the subjects being treated of under certain great heads, so as to form rather a collection of historical and scientific Essays than a work alphabetically arranged for ready reference, they are here placed under their own proper catchwords, so that the reader at a glance may satisfy himself on any particular point of inquiry with the facility with which he may ascertain the meaning of a word in a dictionary. For example: In history, the more eminent sovereigns of Europe are not only noticed under the countries to which they belong, but memoirs of them are given under their own proper names: And, in science, all that relates to Chemistry, Geology, Optics, or the like, is not to be found under these heads alone, but the different branches of each science are separately treated of under the terms by which they are generally distinguished. This peculiarity in the Popular Encyclopedia, while it eminently enhances its utility as a book of reference, may lead some, unacquainted with its character, and taking only a casual survey of its principal articles, to conclude that it is meagre or deficient in its details, even in cases where it would be found, on proper consultation, to be abundantly copious. Indeed, it was a knowledge of such misapprehensions existing in several quarters, that first suggested the necessity of appending to the work an Analytical Index of its various contents. This Index, which has been compiled at a great sacrifice of time and labour, will prove, it is hoped, highly serviceable in directing the reader in his inquiries regarding any branch of knowledge treated of in the Encyclopedia. The Dissertations On The Rise And Progress Of Literature, Science, And The Fine Arts, which accompany the work, and which add so greatly to its value and to the reputation of their distinguished authors, will still further assist the reader in his researches, inasmuch as they trace, step by step, man's gradual advance in civilization, and give, in one connected view, a summary of what he has accomplished in all that really tends to ennoble the human intellect.

Since the publication of the Popular Encyclopedia commenced, many changes have taken place in the literary, political, and scientific world. To record these changes, and especially to render the early parts of the Encyclopedia uniform with the later in point of recent information, a Supplement has been made to the whole, which embraces, as far as practicable, whatever of importance has occurred, in history or science, within these few years, and which has also furnished an opportunity of making such emendations and additions as have been overlooked or omitted in the body of the work. From the character of its contents, the Supplement will doubtless form to a number of readers the most interesting portion of the Encyclopedia. Many of the articles relate to subjects of present moment, and the information they convey is chiefly of a novel nature. The memoirs, in particular, of eminent individuals recently deceased, in which the Supplement abounds, must be the more highly estimated as they are not to be found in any similar work, or have not yet made their way into any biographical dictionary.

In dismissing from his hands a work which has more or less occupied his attention for a period of nearly ten years, the editor has to acknowledge the assistance he received, in the prosecution of his labours, from many gentlemen eminent in the arts and sciences. It would be now difficult to particularise individually all who have contributed to the Popular Encyclopedia; but of those who have had a considerable share in certain departments of the work, may be mentioned Mr William Grier, author of the Mechanic's Calculator and other popular treatises, who furnished a number of articles on subjects connected with the Useful Arts and Natural Philosophy, and Mr Robert Campbell, a young chemist of rising celebrity, who contributed various papers on his own favourite science. Both these gentlemen have been, alas! cut oft' by death, while yet in the prime of manhood. Most of the long articles in Natural History, and the illustrations connected therewith, are the production of Captain Thomas Brown, F.L.S. In the latter portion of the Encyclopedia, particularly in the Supplement, the editor has to acknowledge the valuable assistance of Dr Thomas Andrew, in Anatomy; of Dr Gregory, professor of Medicine in King's College, Aberdeen, in Chemistry; of Mr William Rhind, member of the royal college of surgeons, Edinburgh, in Geology; and of Messrs James and George Whitelaw, in Mechanical Science.
— Alex Whitlaw, Glasgow, 1841.[1]

Public domain sources for the encyclopaedia[edit]

Online volumes selected from Internet Archive
Editor Volume From to Year Notes
Alexander Whitelaw Volume 2 Part 1 Canaille — Congress 1835 With dissertation On the rise and progress of literature, by Sir D. K. Sandford
Volume 2 Part 2 Congress — Enigma 1835
Volume 3 Part 2 Germany (literature and science) — Huns 1836 With dissertation On the rise and progress of literature (Part II), by Sir D. K. Sandford
Volume 4 Part 1 Hunter — Ledyard 1836
Volume 4 Part 2 Ledyard — Mississippi valley 1836
Volume 5 Part 1 Missolonghi — Peculium 1837
Volume 5 Part 2 Pedagogue — Romanzoff 1837
Alexander Whitelaw Volume 1 A — Canada 1846
Volume 5 Missolonghi — Romanzoff 1846
Volume 6 Rome (history of) — Wavre 1846
Alexander Whitelaw Volume 1 A — Barry 1874
Volume 2 Half Barsabas — Byzantium 1874
Volume 4 Half Colony — Drake 1874
Volume 5 Half Drama — France 1874
Volume 6 Half France — Hare 1874
Volume 7 Half Jan-Mayen — MacLaurin 1875
Volume 10 Half Nebular — Petersfield 1875
Charles Annandale Volume 1 A — Baker 1883
Volume 3 C — Colony 1883
Volume 6 France — Hare 1883
Volume 8 Janizaris — Maclaurin 1884
Volume 9 MaCleod — Nebuchadnezzar 1884
Volume 11 Peter Wardein — Rancé 1884


  1. ^ a b Whitelaw, Alexander (1841). The Popular Encyclopedia; or Conversations Lexicon. Volume 1. London, Edinburgh, Glasgow: Blackie & Son.  preface
  2. ^ Ulrike Spree (1 January 2000). Das Streben nach Wissen: Eine vergleichende Gattungsgeschichte der populären Enzyklopädie in Deutschland und Großbritannien im 19. Jahrhundert. Walter de Gruyter. p. 343. ISBN 978-3-11-093395-6. 
  3. ^ Cyclopaedia, Or Encyclopaedia, from The American Cyclopaedia, edited by George Ripley And Charles A. Dana. Also available from Amazon: The New American Cyclopædia. 16 volumes complete. Retrieved 14 July 2010
  4. ^ Available in the National Library of Australia collection: 926662