Time out � after all

E&T opens an antiquarian book to dig up some answers, as well as questions.

Everything explained

The underlying  ideas of the World Wide Web can be traced as far back as 1980, when, at CERN in Switzerland, the Englishman Tim Berners-Lee built ENQUIRE. While it was rather different from the Web in use today, it contained many of the same core ideas (and even some of the ideas of Berners-Lee's later project, the Semantic Web).

 Very few people know, however, that the name 'ENQUIRE' in that case was inspired by "Enquire Within Upon Everything", a book Tim Berners-Lee recalled from his youth.

The very first edition of that amazing volume came out in 1857, and its 150th anniversary went largely unnoticed last year.

A pity that, for 'Enquire Within upon Everything' was a Victorian forerunner of all modern reference books, dictionaries and encyclopaedias in every field of knowledge, including engineering and technology.

In the wake of the industrial revolution the population of Britain swiftly developed a thirst for information about the myriad of new goods and ideas that were becoming available. But without television, newspaper advertising and junk mail, how did people get to know about everything?

Millions solved the problem by buying a copy of 'Enquire Within…', which caused a publishing sensation in Victorian Britain. Because it explained so much about so many different aspects of life, it continues to provide a very enjoyable and informative peep into the lifestyle of our forebears. In 2,775 entries the enquiring Victorian learns how to tell if food is fresh and when it is in season; how to dance; the difference between local dialects; the intricacies of grammar and spelling; the rules of games and puzzles; hints on etiquette; kitchen and household tips and recipes; cures for scores of ailments including rheumatism and baldness; the origins of Christian names; first aid; employment and rental regulations; keeping fit; dressmaking and embroidery; births, marriages and deaths; personal conduct - and scores of other matters.

We know when and where the Victorians lived. This fascinating book, a real cornucopia of information and wisdom, most of which is still amazingly up-to-date, explains much about how they lived too.

What, for example, does a lady with blue eyes need not do?

"Languish".

How to make French polish for boots and shoes?

"Mix together two pints of the best vinegar and one pint of soft water; stir into it a quarter of a pound of glue, broken up, half a pound of logwood chips, a quarter of an ounce of finely powdered indigo, a quarter of an ounce of the best soft-soap, and a quarter of an ounce of icinglass. Put the mixture over the fire, and let it boil for ten minutes, or more. Then strain the liquid and bottle and cork it. When cold, it is fit for use. The polish should be applied with clean sponge."

Easy, isn't it? 

'Enquire Within Upon Everything' was primarily a reference book, which set itself the somewhat immodest task of providing "… a vast Fund of valuable Information, embracing every Subject of Interest or Utility…..at a merely nominal Cost".

But it also contained guidance (often in a chatty and down-to-earth question and answer fashion) on a great variety of everyday topics, with material ranging from short, moralising epigrams to DIY and legal advice.

To give you some idea of the range of the content, I shall quote a few examples from a more up-to-date 1891 edition. I am proud to say that in my ever-expanding book collection there's also a copy of one of its earliest imprints going back to July 1861.

I think that many modern parents and grandparents may relate to the following:

"Allowing Children to Talk incessantly is a mistake. We do not mean to say that they should be restricted from talking in proper seasons, but they should be taught to know when it is proper for them to cease."

I'm sure my grandmother would have approved of this archetypically Victorian tip, which is very much at odds with modern thinking on how children should be treated.

This item appeared on the same page as a series of 'Hints for Home Comfort', which contains the information that will interest migraine sufferers:

"Keeping the feet warm will prevent headaches."

There is a lengthy section on cookery, which tells us such things as how to bake 'Pure and Cheap Bread' and also how to make Calf's Head Pie.

I wonder when you last enjoyed that dish?

And here are some gentle forays in the area of science and technology:

Q: Why does a polished teapot make the best tea?

A: "As polished metal is a very bad radiator of heat, it keeps the water hot much longer; and the hotter the water is, the better it 'draws' the tea."

Nice and simple...

Q: Why should a meat cover be made bright?

A: "If the cover be dull or scratched, it will absorb heat from the food, and instead of keeping it hot, will make it cold."

The following sounds rather dubious in modern terms.

Q: "Why are damp beds dangerous?"

A: "Because the evaporation absorbs the heat so abundantly from the surface of our body, that its temperature is lowered below its natural standard in consequence of which health is injured (this also explains why it is dangerous to sleep in a damp bed)."

I like the last addition in brackets. Can it be that in Victorian times beds had some other mysterious applications, apart from mere sleeping?

And how about:

"Why do lamps smoke?"

"Why do raindrops vary in size?"

"Why does an old saucepan boil quicker than a new one?"

Any ideas???

If you can think of any modern answers to the above Victorian questions, please send them to vvitaliev@theiet.org  marked 'Enquire Within'. We'll then check them against the 1861 edition of 'Enquire…' and publish the names of those readers who came closest to accuracy - as seen by the Victorians.

If the response is adequate enough, we may consider having a regular (Victorian) question-(modern) answer page in E&T.

This will be our way of celebrating the anniversary of the truly groundbreaking old folio that ultimately led to the creation of the Web.

Vitali Vitaliev is the features editor of E&T (vvitaliev@theiet.org)

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