Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Chambers, Ephraim

CHAMBERS, EPHRAIM (d. 1740), encyclopædist, was born, probably about 1680, at Kendal, where his father occupied and owned a small farm. Educated at Kendal grammar school he was sent to London, and ultimately apprenticed to Senex, a well-known map and globe maker, who encouraged his desire for the acquisition of knowledge. While thus occupied he formed the design of compiling a cyclopædia on a larger scale than that of John Harris's ‘Lexicon Technicum,’ the first edition of which had been published in 1704, and was the only work of the kind in the language. After he had begun the enterprise he quitted Senex and took chambers in Gray's Inn, where he completed it. In 1728 was issued by subscription, dedicated to the king, and in two volumes folio, his ‘Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences … compiled from the best authors,’ &c., with an elaborate preface explaining the plan of the work, and attempting a classification of knowledge. The price of the book was four guineas, but its value was at once recognised, and procured for its compiler the honour in 1729 of being elected a member of the Royal Society. A new edition being called for, Chambers resolved to recast the first on a plan explained in a paper of ‘Considerations,’ of which (as of the first edition of the ‘Cyclopædia’) there is no copy in the library of the British Museum. It is to them that Johnson probably referred when he told Boswell that he had ‘formed his style’ partly upon ‘Chambers's proposal for his Dictionary’ (Boswell's Johnson, edition of 1848, p. 69, and note by Malone). A clause in a bill introduced into parliament compelling the publishers of an improved edition of a work to issue the improvements separately led to the abandonment of the recast, and in 1738 simply a second edition was issued with some alterations and additions. In 1739 a third edition appeared, and after the compiler's death a fourth in 1741, followed by a fifth in 1746—in the case of such a work a singularly rapid sale. A French translation of it gave rise to Diderot's and D'Alembert's ‘Encyclopédie,’ and the English original was finally expanded into Rees's once well-known ‘Encyclopædia.’ Chambers is said to have edited, and he certainly contributed to, the ‘Literary Magazine … by a Society of Gentlemen,’ 1735–7, which consisted mainly of reviews of the chief new books. He translated from the French of Jean Dubreuil the ‘Practice of Perspective,’ 4th edition, 1765, and co-operated with John Martyn, the botanist, in an abridged translation of the ‘Philosophical History and Memoirs of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris,’ 5 vols. 1742. During his later years he paid a visit to France in search of health, and is said to have rejected a promising invitation to issue there an edition (translation?) of his ‘Cyclopædia’ and dedicate it to Louis XV. He left behind him a manuscript account of his French visit, which has never been published; but some letters to his wife descriptive of it and on other subjects are printed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ lvii. 314, 351. As an author he was liberally and as an invalid most kindly treated by the first Thomas Longman, the founder of the publishing house of that name, who during Chambers's lifetime became the largest shareholder in the ‘Cyclopædia.’ Chambers was an avowed freethinker, irascible, kind to the poor, and extremely frugal. He died 15 May 1740, and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, where, in an epitaph of his own composition, he describes himself as ‘multis pervulgatus, paucis notus; qui vitam inter lucem et umbram, nec eruditus, nec idiota, literis deditus, transegit.’

[Gent. Mag. for September 1785; Univ. Mag. for January 1785; Biog. Brit. (Kippis); Chalmers's Biog. Dict.; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. v. 659, &c.; Histories of Publishing Houses (by the writer of this article), the House of Longman, in the Critic for March 1860.]

F. E.