Universal Knowledge in the year of The Caxton Club's birth

Dan Crawford

When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it.

Lord Kelvin, ca. 1893

ne of the charming beliefs of our ancestors, one that still crops up from time to time, was that all knowledge was measurable and manageable. One day, it was believed, we would have measured everything, recorded the numbers in an encyclopedia, and the whole of existence would be perfectly understood.

One of the finest examples of the Victorian conviction that not only could everything be measured and written down, but understood by the common run of human being, was a masterwork by William Ralston Balch, international journalist, traveling companion of Franz Liszt, and author of, among other things, the first railway guide to the Gettysburg Battlefield. His magnum opus was called (take a deep breath) The Complete Compendium of Universal Knowledge Containing All You Want to Know of Language, History, Government, Business and Social Forms, and a Thousand and One Other Useful Subjects. It was published at some point in 1895; at least, that's when its list of American historical events stops (on April 3, by the way). It was probably sold door-to-door by book agents who must have had little to say once they'd finished with the title.

The book is well worthy of that title. Pretty much everything you'd care to ask about in 1895 is contained in the tiny print of its 813 pages. Half a dozen dictionaries take up the first half of the book; these are followed by concise discussions of weather-wisdom (including a new method of foretelling the weather based on phases of the moon), the laws of extradition with Great Britain, the states which allow women to vote, rules for visiting the White House, your duties as a citizen, etiquette, parliamentary practice, a schedule for farm work with a generous section of doctoring your horse, housekeeping hints, recipes, first aid, the latest tariffs, and an account of the deaths of British kings. There is some editorial comment involved in this last; we find Balch staunchly patriotic in noting that "George III died as he had lived — a madman. Throughout his life he was at least a consistent monarch." Eighteen eighty-five was rather late for fighting the Revolutionary War, but, after all, "Big Bill" Thompson kept it going in Chicago well into the 1920s.

Even this did not exhaust the author's resources. ALL phenomena existed to be studied and set down in figures. Tucked away among the dressmaking hints and speculations on the future role of the telephone and electric light in society can be found his estimates for the cost of constructing Solomon's Temple, and the dimensions of Heaven.

This last is an especially interesting look into the logical Victorian mind. Taking a verse from one of the least scientific spots in the Bible (Revelation 21:6), he computed the size of Heaven. Realizing that a number with this many zeros on it would be incomprehensible, he set about to render it into a form that could be taken in. First, he knocked off half that space, feeling that the Throne of God and various administrative offices for angels would take that much. Half of what was left, he decided, would be needed for streets, alleys, and skyways. (No toll roads, obviously).

The remainder was still a humongous number, so he calmly estimated how many human beings had lived in the whole history of Earth. Going on, he calculated that there must be at least 100 planets capable of supporting life in that amount. Dividing this number of intelligent and presumably Heaven-bound life-forms into the amount of space he had decided would be our habitation above, he came to the conclusion that every single one of us would be assigned in Heaven the equivalent of a suite of 100 rooms, each 16-feet square.

He convinced me. It must be heaven if you finally have that much room for books.

(By the way, Solomon's temple cost $77.5 billion to put up. But remember: that's in 1895 dollars, when a billion bucks was still worth something.) v

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