The first folio edition of the Encyclopédie was not only a monumental expression of French Enlightenment thought and a contemporary political and intellectual scandal. It was also a commercial success, reaping huge profits for the initial coalition of Parisian publishers. The potential for profit prompted subsequent less expensive, smaller format editions. Over 8000 copies in quarto format appeared in the 1770s, and cost only a third to a half the price of the folio volumes. Between 1778 and 1782 an octavo edition of 6000 was published, and sold for even less.
The number of plates in these editions was reduced by nearly 75%, and most of the deleted images were those depicting the mechanical arts (the focus of this show). The editors for these cheaper editions decided that the military officers, administrators and lawyers whom they were targeting had little interest in the manufacturing trades.
The image to the left is a facsimile of one of the “Surgery” plates, which were deemed more interesting for late eighteenth-century French professionals.
In addition to the first folio edition featured prominently in the Gallery, MIT also owns a copy of the 1778-1782 Lausanne octavo edition, donated in 1942 by Edward H. Davis, class of 1900. It was in the open stack reference collection for several decades, before being transferred to Special Collections. The title page above is a facsimile from the first volume.