A 19th century encyclopedia gets a makeover | Smithsonian Voices

Between 1849 and 1851, Johan George Heck published his encyclopedia Bilder-Atlas zum Conversations-Lexicon and the work continues to offer valuable insight into life in the 19th century. With over 12,000 individual illustrations on over 500 engraved plates, the book beautifully depicts a wide range of subjects in science and culture. Much like our own Smithsonian Institution, it covered topics ranging from art to zoology. Now, a new digital edition helps bring its insights to 21st century viewers.

Title page of the book written in German.

Title page, Bilder-Atlas zum Conversations-Lexicon, Abt. 1 (1849).

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

Even before Heck Bilder-Atlas has been fully published, work has begun on an English version. This iteration, Iconographic encyclopedia of science, literature and Art was translated and edited by Spencer Fullerton Baird and published between 1851 and 1852. Although noted as the “Professor of Natural Sciences at Dickinson College” on the title page, by the time the book was finished Baird had joined the Smithsonian in as assistant to the first Secretary, Joseph Henry.


Title page, Iconographic Encyclopedia of Science, Literature and Art, Atlas Volume 1 (1851).

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

Baird went to great lengths to translate Heck’s original work and rearranged the text based on his experience with natural history publications. He also added tables of contents and indexes to make searching easier. Baird hoped to provide what any good encyclopedia should provide – solid information on many topics for a popular audience. Subjects included mathematics, astronomy, geology, botany, zoology, history, ethnology, military science, architecture, mythology, and fine arts. Spencer Baird’s handwritten notes for publication are contained in Spencer Baird’s many papers in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. Below is an outline of Baird’s draft for the botany chapter.


Baird’s handwritten notes on the Botany section, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7002, Spencer Fullerton Baird Papers. Series 7, box 51, file 1.

Smithsonian Institution Archive

The illustrations in Iconographic encyclopedia were printed using Heck’s original steel plates Bilder-Atlas and still included German labels. Science historian Eugene Ferguson called them “exceptionally crisp and attractive” and even today they look like a fine assortment of 19th-century clip art. In total, the final publication consisted of four text volumes with two plate atlas volumes.


Military Sciences, Taf 16, Iconographic Encyclopedia of Science, Literature and Art, Atlas Volume 2 (1851).

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

Examples of sections of the Iconographic encyclopedia were well received. A first examination in the New York Daily Tribune declared that he “would make a contribution of great value and importance to the interests of knowledge in this country”. According to a brief article by American Scientist, the encyclopedia would be available to subscribers for $1 per month for approximately 25 months. With the cost of binding, the total set was estimated at $26-30. That’s about $1,000 in today’s currency (or the cost of a nice laptop, based on various inflation calculators).

The publication was a perfect fit with Baird’s philosophy for museums and, ultimately, the Smithsonian. The institution was in its infancy at the time, with regular debates about where to focus its efforts. Joseph Henry believed that the Institution should give priority to research and international exchanges. Others, including Baird, believed the Institution should be a force in democratizing information through museums and public education. Baird would have a long and successful career at the Smithsonian, carrying out some of his plans and achieving the title of second secretary in 1878.


Taf 3g, Iconographic Encyclopedia of Science, Literature and Art, Atlas Volume 1 (1851).

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

The Smithsonian Libraries and Archives have two complete sets of the first edition of Icononographic Encyclopedia. The entire 3rd Joseph F. Cullman Natural History Library was owned by Baird himself. The entire Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library, gift of the Hewitt sisters, has been digitized and is available in our Digital Library, Biodiversity Heritage Library, and Internet Archive.

We love how our digitized collections are finding new life on screens around the world and thanks to a recent project by Nicholas Rougeux, Iconographic encyclopedia is now even more accessible. Using our images from the Internet Archive, Rougeux transformed the static pages of a 19th century book into an interactive resource. Users can browse the four volumes by subject and manipulate the plates to highlight individual figures.


Screenshot from Nicholas Rougeux’s digital edition of Iconographic Encyclopaedia (2022).

Just as Baird improved on Heck’s work with indexes and tables of contents, Rougeux made content even easier to skim for the 21st century reader. We look forward to seeing how the information in this iconic publication continues to transform in the future.

Further reading:

Shit, Johan George, Bilder-Atlas zum Conversations-Lexicon, Leipzig, 1849-1851.

Shit, Johan George, Iconographic encyclopedia of science, literature and ArtIConographic encyclopedia of science, literature and Art ..translated from the German, with additions, and edited by Spencer F. Baird. New York, 1851-1852.

Ferguson, Eugene S.Contributions to the bibliography in the history of techniques” (Part II), Technology and culture, Flight. 3, no. 2 (spring 1962), p. 167-174.

“Iconographic encyclopedia of science, literature and art”.American Scientist(0036-8733), 5. (issue 15.), p. 117.

“Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1823-1887”, Archives of the Smithsonian Institution.

Papers of Spencer Fullerton Baird, Archives of the Smithsonian Institution, Record Unit 7002.

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