In February 1908, Amalgamated Press of London started printing an extraordinary series of books. Released in fortnightly parts, the Children’s Encyclopedia aimed not to cross-reference but to teach. Its 760+ articles aimed to give its pre-school readers a thorough grounding in those subjects its authors considered to be the building-blocks of middle-class culture, including history, the natural sciences, industry, mathematics, French and a tour of the peoples of the world (from a then-politically-correct perspective of the white man as the pinnacle of civilization, but with a benevolent generosity of spirit that robbed this gentle racism of its sting).
Its editor was journalist Arthur Mee, an extraordinarily prolific writer who averaged a million words a year for fifty years, and who believed above all in the power of the human race to overcome its shortcomings and ‘do the right thing’.
It taught how to make a fiddle from a cigar-box, it showed the inside of a British pottery, it told the stories of Botticelli and Louis Pasteur, of Beethoven and electricity, and above all it talked of God, without putting religion in the way of any branch of human learning. It was intelligent, simplifying but never dumbing down, and it tackled many difficult questions with a cheerful optimism. It was a remarkable, hopeful achievement, and I hope it reached a lot of people.
I grew up with these books. They’re still here, in my parental home, and in the time I have before I jet off to speak at TBU Porto, I’m reading through as many as I can. (You can do the same with volume 1: it’s online here). And I haven’t yet reached the section about the Moon that concludes something like this:
Perhaps one day someone will set foot on that distant neighbour of ours so far away in the sky. And what a day that will be.
I wasn’t even born when that most remarkable day came to pass – and the man who took that first step has just died at the age of 82, even as millions of us peer through a robot camera lens onto the surface of Mars.
It’s easy to decry the excesses of the modern world – but it’s equally easy to forget how far we’ve come in so short a time, through so much that could have gone so dreadfully differently. Some people say they’d like to be born in some other historical age, out of love of that time or of disillusionment with the current era. Well, not me. I feel incredibly lucky. If I’d been reading the Children’s Encyclopedia when it was first released, I might have missed the beginning of one of the most exciting stories in human history.
And I’m just fine right here, thanks.
Image: NASA Goddard Photo & Video