Today, I am celebrating the birthday of Robert Chambers who was born in Peebles in the Scottish Borders in 1802. He and his brother William founded W & R Chambers Publishing, who eventually produced Chambers Dictionary. That’s my favourite dictionary, but that’s not why I wanted to tell you about him. I discovered Robert a year ago when I was writing on Tumblr and he has been with me almost every day since. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Both Robert and his brother were born with six fingers and six toes. Both had undergone surgery to remove the extra digits but one of Robert’s operations had left him lame. So he was not an active child, but became instead a great devourer of knowledge. When he found a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica in his father’s attic, it kept him entertained for years. His brother later said of him: “the acquisition of knowledge was with him the highest of earthly enjoyments.” I have learned so many interesting things whilst researching this blog that I’m inclined to agree.
The family moved to Edinburgh in 1813 and when Robert was sixteen he began to run a second hand book stall on Leith Walk. When his brother William bought a printing press, they began to publish magazines together, with Robert providing the content. In 1832 they began to produce a weekly magazine called ‘The Edinburgh Journal’. It cost one penny and included articles about history, religion, language, and science.
In 1844 he produced a book called ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’. It began by explaining the formation of the solar system, continued with the geology of the earth and followed the pattern of increasingly complex lifeforms right the way up to humans. He talked about how one species of creature may have arisen from another. He would have referred to it as the transmutation of species, we would now call it evolution. This was all very controversial and ungodly at the time and Robert went to great lengths to conceal his authorship. He dictated it to his wife, so the manuscript would be in her handwriting and then sent it to a different publisher. It brings together a lot of ideas that were around at the time regarding how our world came to be as it is. Some of the experiments he cites are questionable, such as one which suggests insects can be made to arise spontaneously from electricity. But his examination of fossil records, which points out that fossils of simpler organisms are found in older rocks, is good.
Vestiges quickly became a bestseller. The first edition sold out in only a few days. Over ten years, it sold over 20,000 copies. Prince Albert read it aloud to Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln was also impressed by it. Others were not so keen. Such a theory rather cut God out of the equation, which was a pretty shocking claim. Roberts book received a lot of scathing reviews. At least one of his critics thought it was such awful nonsense that it must have been written by a woman. Some of the theories in the book were similar to those being pursued by Charles Darwin. Darwin found some of his explanations a little clunky. He didn’t feel that the, then anonymous, author of Vestiges had really described the environments that caused animals such as a woodpecker to develop in the way it had. But for many years, Vestiges was the only book available in English the explained the theory of evolution. Its reception by its critics may also have been what put Darwin off publishing his ‘Origin of Species’, which appeared fifteen years later. Robert’s authorship of Vestiges was not revealed until 1884, thirteen years after his death.
Robert Chambers’ last work was ‘Chambers Book of Days’ published in 1864. It was subtitled: ‘A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character’. It’s a massive work that runs to two volumes each with more than 840 pages. It contains, for each day of the year, a list of the births and deaths of notable people and a list of the saints associated with that day. Then underneath are a number of short essays about the some of the people, or the events that happened on that date. When I discovered Robert, I was happy to have found a kindred spirit. His undertaking was much larger than my meagre effort. He wrote around two thousand essays for his ‘Book of Days’ and he didn’t even have the internet to help him. It seems his family all thought the huge amount of work he put into his book contributed to his early death in 1871. Despite this warning from history, I have pressed on with my project and now have only twelve days to go.
Robert has helped me out of many a hole in this last year. When Wikipedia failed me, I turned to him. Sometimes, I’ve felt he was up against the same problems as me when seeking something interesting to say about a particular date. But he has also introduced me to some wonderful characters. Without him, I would not know so much about mountebanks, eighteenth century bets and weird burials. You can find Chambers Book of Days, in a searchable format here. If you want to know what he has to say about today, I recommend you scroll to the bottom and read ‘Child Suckled by Goat.’