The twenty-eight volumes of the Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une societé de gens de lettres (also known as the Encyclopédie) was originally published in Paris between 1751 and 1772. The edition of the Encyclopédie held by Bruce Peel Special Collections was published in Geneva from 1771 to 1776.

As an attempt to gather together and order all of the knowledge of the world, the
Encyclopédie is a representative Enlightenment project (Bull 6-9). With its eleven volumes of illustrations created by copperplate engravings, the Encyclopédie also provides an example of how illustrations could be reproduced and disseminated prior to the discovery of photography. The images and texts were printed in separate volumes since they required two different techniques for printing.

One of the plates shown here portrays a print shop, and shows how such illustrations would have been created. The print has an
indexical relationship with the inked plate, but unlike a photograph, it does not hold an indexical relationship to the thing that-is-seen in the illustration. 

Another plate, captioned "Optique," explains the principles of the camera obscura, an enclosed box that could project the view from the outside world into its interior. The earliest photographs were created by combining the camera obscura with light-sensitive materials that could fix the view as a stable image. Note in particular the two pictures at the bottom of the page; the picture on the left demonstrates the principles of the camera obscura, while the picture on the right portrays a portable camera obscura with an added lens. Camera obscuras like this one had been in use since at least the sixteenth century.

Browse the Encyclopédie's articles and plates at the Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project.


Denis Diderot (author)
Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (author)
Pierre Mouchon (author)


43.0 x 26.0 cm
AE 25 E56 1771 folio


vol VII plate 1 printing 72dpi.jpg
Plates 5 optique B.jpg
text v5 p1000 spread.jpg
Plates v5 titlepage.jpg
Group A.jpg


Denis Diderot (author) Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (author) Pierre Mouchon (author) , “Encyclopédie,” Bruce Peel Special Collections Library Online Exhibits, accessed July 24, 2024, https://omeka.library.ualberta.ca/items/show/3039.

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