Encyclopaedia Britannica (Ninth Edition, 1875-1889)

In the days before the internet the first source for reference material was the encyclopaedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica was the standard. I was introduced to the delights of the late Victorian versions of Encyclopaedia Britannica when I was at university studying chemical engineering in the late 1960s. A chapter on capillarity, or capillary action, was used by a lecturer as one of his standard texts because in his view nothing else described the subject quite so well. From my first sight of a copy of this text I was hooked.

What is amazing about the 9th edition, published in 1875-1889, is that here is a set of books that attempted not only to be inclusive but also to use the finest contributors. The list of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of Art and Science at the end of the nineteenth century. The physicists James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin and Lord Rayleigh (my particular scientific hero) and the biologist TH Huxley contributed articles. None of them flinched at all from going into the sort of detail that is usually reserved for text books. William Morris contributed an article on mural decoration; William Rossetti contributed on Shelley and Algernon Swinburne on Keats. There was even a contribution from Robert Louis Stevenson. No wonder that the Ninth Edition is regarded as the most scholarly edition of Britannica.

Quite a few years ago, for a significant birthday, I received a full set of ninth edition volumes as a present from Maggie. She purchased it from a second-hand book store in Derbyshire. The twenty four volumes, plus an index, are weighty and cover nearly six foot of bookshelf space but they are my pride and joy. I often browse them.

Some of the 24 volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition

So what about canals? Surely these volumes must include reference to what in the 1880s was an important transport system and written by an an eminent contributor. Well there is a 15-page section on canals and the contributor comes with a fine pedigree. The contributor is David Stevenson from a famous engineering family; he was the son of Robert Stevenson and nephew of Robert Louis. Although primarily a lighthouse engineer, Wikipedia lists 28 he built mostly in Scotland, and had recently written Canal and River Engineering. There is an extract from the canal article on the web.

The article itself has an interesting emphasis. Stevenson makes a point of describing the difference between Boat or Barge canals and Ship Canals and it is the latter that he describes in most detail. This is hardly surprising given that in the 1880s most canal developments concerned ship canals and the emphasis of Britannica was to describe the state of the art. Stevenson does as well as anyone comprehensively and succinctly covering the history of canals throughout the world and draws on Samuel Smiles Lives of the Engineers to describe the contribution made by Bridley and Telford to British Canals. When the ninth edition was published the Suez Canal had been built but the Panama Canal had not. The article describes in some detail the proposed routes for the Panama.

Part of an illustration of "Ship" Canals from the Ninth Edition

Given the article was written by a Scottish civil engineer and the encyclopaedia was published in Edinburgh, many of the contemporary examples are from Scotland including the Caledonian, Forth and Clyde, and Union canals. The article includes a lovely cross sectional drawing of how a towpath should be constructed with adequate drainage. There are also numerous cross-sections of canals; obviously a big issue for civil engineers. For barge and boat canals he defines some interesting dimensions. The least breadth of at the bottom of canal should be twice the width of the boat, the least cross-sectional area should be six times the area of the boat cross-section, and the depth of water should be 1ft 6ins greater that the boat draught.

It is interesting that he describes in detail water supply for canals and he repeats the some calculations of Fulton on the amount of water lost by boats going uphill and downhill in “standard” locks. He reports that side ponds could be used but delay traffic and are not in general use. He also describes inclined planes including those used in the USA, the Great Western Canal in England, and the Monkland canal in Scotland.

Another interesting section is on canal propulsion. Stevenson describes steam towing by tug on the Gloucester and Sharpness canal in 1860. He also describes the hydrodynamic experiments with high-speed canal towing carried out by J Scott Russell. It is this work that discovered the soliton or solitary wave. It was thought at the time that boats could be use this wave to save energy (horse supplied of course).

Aside from the canal article there are also articles on Brindley and Telford, and an excellent article on Aqueducts that has a superb illustration that includes the Chirk and Pontcysyllte aqueducts.

Aqueducts in the Ninth Edition

If you see a set of old Britannica sitting on a shelf in a second book store, have a browse through the canals section, particularly if it is the ninth or eleventh edition, you might be surprised. And if like me, you are interested in Victorian science and engineering, why not ask the price? Because they are reference books Britannica do appear to command the prices that some other books of the this vintage do. Although extracts from some articles in the ninth and eleventh are available on-line, there's nothing like the real thing!