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Cultivating Chaos: Entropy, Information, and the Making of the Dictionary of National Biography

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 October 2021

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The Dictionary of National Biography, published between 1885 and 1900, was one of Britain's biggest cyclopedia projects. The rampant expansion of the nation's archives, private collections, and museums produced an abundance of materials that frustrated the dictionary's editors, Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, especially because methodologies for making order of such materials were underdeveloped. Adding to their frustration was the sense of impending doom felt generally in Britain after the discovery of the second law of thermodynamics in 1859. Entropy put an end to the presiding belief in the infinite energy that fueled Britain's economic development and therefore challenged Victorian biography's premise that the capacity for self-development was boundless. Like the physicists of the era, these dictionary makers searched for ways to circumvent entropy's deadening force and reenergize their world. This project would not actually be achieved, however, until the twentieth century when Claude Shannon published his “Information Theory” in 1948. I argue that in an attempt to get out from under the chaos of information overload, the editors of the DNB invented new methods to organize information that anticipated Shannon's revolutionary theory and changed the way that we think, write, and work.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

The Dictionary of National Biography, published between 1885 and 1900 at the steady clip of four volumes per year for a total of sixty-three volumes, was the biggest project of its kind in Britain. Its first editor, Leslie Stephen, was fond of framing the colossal endeavor by reminding the public of the epic failures that came before, such as the biographical dictionary published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which collapsed after finishing the letter A in seven volumes.Footnote 1 Stephen's quip that the society “died of the too gigantic effort” more accurately describes his own fraught relation to the enormity of the DNB, a project that nearly killed him.Footnote 2 Sidney Lee, who assumed the editorship after Stephen's illness in 1891, boasted that the DNB contained a “greater mass of accurate information respecting the past achievements of the British and Irish race than . . . any previous literary undertaking.”Footnote 3 Indeed, due to Stephen's insistence on including “timid and third-rate lives,”Footnote 4 the Dictionary ballooned to 27,236 entries, many requiring original research.Footnote 5 Contributors were given just six months to complete their pieces, which the editors often rewrote. With 647 contributors’ work to oversee,Footnote 6 the grueling pace of publishing one volume per quarter, and a minuscule staff, Stephen, not surprisingly, adopted a fatalistic tone. But what most alarmed the editors was the state of the archives, museums, and collections that were cropping up across the country. The sheer mass of printed matter weighed on Stephen, who felt “submerged” by the “vast morass” of materials piling up in the nation's archives.Footnote 7 Overwhelmed by the abundance of materials and the underdeveloped methods for dealing with them, Stephen summed up the making of the DNB in a word: “chaos.”Footnote 8

Throughout the twentieth century, the DNB was hailed as a monument to the Victorian age, a capstone of biographical achievement before biography became modern. More recently the Dictionary has been understood as a bridge between eras. Ira Bruce Nadel suggests that the DNB links the brief self-help-styled biographies popular at midcentury to the even briefer biographies written by modernists,Footnote 9 and Juliette Atkinson argues that by including obscure lives, the editors of the DNB paved the way for twentieth-century biographers’ embrace of noncanonical lives.Footnote 10 I shall argue that the DNB bridges the centuries in yet another way. Its editors were not the first to feel beleaguered by the rampant accumulation of materials: Thomas Carlyle also ranted about the growing “rubbish-heaps” of printed matter,Footnote 11 but whereas all he could do was complain, Stephen and Lee pioneered ways to “sift” through the “heaps” and make order out of chaos.Footnote 12 The editors struggled to find a language, method, and style capable of keeping disorder in check. What emerges in their lectures, essays, and letters, I argue, is an emphasis on three concepts—concision, clarity, and order—with which they inculcate contributors, historians, and biographers into modern ways to manage information and thereby build a bridge to the information age. I am not suggesting that they do so intentionally, but rather that as they wrestle with the implications of entropy, they, like the scientists of their era, accidentally forge a new way of thinking. They are neither leading the way, nor are they necessarily following the scientists, but as scholars—including Gillian Beer, George Levine, and Allen MacDuffie—remind us, scientists and writers share a cultural context, or as Katherine Hayles so aptly puts it, “thought, language, and social context evolve together.”Footnote 13

Unlike previous biographical projects, the DNB was mired in entropy. William Thomson summarized what would become the second law of thermodynamics in 1852 as “the universal tendency to the dissipation of mechanical energy.”Footnote 14 But it would take another decade for this idea to be named. In 1865 Rudolf Clausius coined the term “entropy” to describe the idea that any closed system will reach a point at which energy is no longer available. Yet even before entropy was named, poets and novelists portrayed its withering force, as Barri Gold has shown.Footnote 15 Biographers, however, were slow to admit entropy's drag. That may be because the dominant form of biography prior to entropy's rule, self-help, depended upon a belief in limitless energy. Popularized by Samuel Smiles in 1859, self-help was predicated on the idea that men improved machines and thereby improved themselves, ad infinitum. Self-help therefore promoted a utopic worldview in which man and machine never stopped improving. But the infinitely available energy that fueled this genre dried up with the popularization of entropy, and in the decades following Clausius's findings, biographies of ambitious individuals with ceaseless energy made less sense, which may explain Stephen's attraction to the “timid.” Entropy, however, affected the subject matter of the DNB less than the mood of its makers. For all of Stephen's moaning about the “powers of chaos and darkness,”Footnote 16 he embraced the entropic mood. By relentlessly calling out the problems he faced—unfettered accumulation of materials, the disorganized state of the archives, underdeveloped methods for sorting facts—Stephen focused on them as no one had before. Stephen would shine the light on every corner in which disorder lurked, even weaving the story of his own breakdown into his narrative of the Dictionary's making. It was precisely his entropy-centric attitude that enabled him to resist entropy and, by so doing, to usher the DNB into the information age.

The DNB is one of the most significant information projects of the nineteenth century. By the time the publisher George Smith proposed the Dictionary in 1881, efforts to organize the nation's archives had been underway for a few decades, including the cataloging of government records (1862), manuscripts in private collections (1869), and the British Museum collections.Footnote 17 The DNB stands out among these projects because of the unique records the editors left behind. Few participants in these massive organizational projects were so vigilant in their battle with chaos. If the editors were looking for kindred spirits in their war against entropy, they would have found them among contemporary physicists. During the century's last decades, James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann sought to defy entropy's fatal grasp by uncovering its structure. Since it was impossible to know how millions of particles in a gas would behave, Maxwell introduced statistics to predict their probable behavior. To help explain his statistical inquiries, Maxwell created a tiny figure, nicknamed “Maxwell's Demon,” whose sole job would be to impose order on the disorder that was entropy. Boltzmann then established that it is highly probable that a system will tend toward disorder, implying that order was so unlikely that it was valuable. But one of Boltzmann's most prescient observations was not understood when he pronounced it in 1894. He said that entropy is “missing information,” an idea that stunned future physicists because it linked nineteenth-century entropy science and twentieth-century information theory.Footnote 18 The editors of the DNB were on their own path toward understanding Boltzmann's enigmatic statement. As the first biographers to battle entropy, Stephen and Lee sought ways to reenergize their project. What they stumbled upon resembles the informational worldview that Boltzmann first glimpsed.

Maxwell and Boltzmann's application of statistics to entropy changed thermodynamics forever by challenging the absoluteness of its second law and extending entropy “to systems that have nothing to do with heat engines.”Footnote 19 Information was one of those systems. The word “information” has been around since the fourteenth century, but it was not until the twentieth century that information became associated with the radically new way of organizing matter and understanding life that we call the information age.Footnote 20 In 1948 Claude Shannon published the theory that is credited with ushering in the information age. Shannon's information theory represents a synthesis of Bell Laboratories’ research on telegraph, telephone, and radio transmissions in the 1920s with World War II work on radar, ballistics, and cryptography. Until midcentury, communications systems were treated as separate entities, but Shannon realized that all communications systems were alike in that they transmit “information.”Footnote 21 Most importantly, Shannon boiled down the purpose of all communications to “reproducing at one point . . . a message selected at another point,”Footnote 22 and he proved that this message could remain intact. This insight fueled the war's encryption projects and had widespread applications for everything from television transmission to the retrieval of messages from outer space. Moreover, Shannon's proof that messages were inviolable gave birth to new fields, such as cognitive science, and reinvigorated old ones such as biology with the recognition that cells, genes, and DNA send, receive, and store messages. Enthusiasts claim that no field—indeed, no life-form—remains untouched. Historian of science James Gleick asserts that “history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.”Footnote 23 And with no hyperbole intended, physicist John Archibald Wheeler, referring to Shannon's coinage of “bit” as a metric for information, proclaimed, “it from bit,” by which he meant that, godlike, information gives rise to “every it—every particle, every field of rice, even the spacetime continuum itself.”Footnote 24

Such optimistic accounts of information theory are common and likely stem from its role in cracking the Enigma cipher and winning the war. Aaron Worth, however, asserts that information is born not of the Good War, but of the Boer War; not of freedom, but of imperialism. Worth argues that information societies evolve to make order out of chaos for the sake of saving empire. Once the British recognized the extent to which they had destroyed the social codes of the South African population at the end of the Boer War, they launched a propaganda campaign to shape and inform the natives before an imperial rival had the chance.Footnote 25 Worth's analysis wrests information from its associations with World War II and challenges us to consider its nineteenth-century roots. Worth proposes that nations transition into information societies not during periods of imperialist expansion but in times of consolidation, as happened at the end of the nineteenth century. In these times, making order becomes a heroic act, and order-making figures like spies and detectives proliferate in fiction. I contend that those who were actually in charge of Britain's great information projects labored invisibly in the archives, only hinting at their imperial import, as did the DNB editors when they likened themselves to explorers, “hewing their way through a hopelessly intricate jungle.”Footnote 26 Yet the reach of Stephen and Lee's yearnings to convert a “vast” and “tropical” “wilderness” into an “intelligible system” extends further than they imagined and forever changed the way we think, write, and work.Footnote 27

Scientists marvel that the formula Victorian physicists used to describe entropy is so similar to Shannon's information theory.Footnote 28 But this strange coincidence has received relatively little attention from literary scholars.Footnote 29 If we want to interrogate the regime of information under which we live, we should be aware of its roots, which are not limited to the sciences. My task is to reveal how two dictionary makers who felt compelled to sort out the “vast” and “rapidly accumulating” “chaos of materials” unintentionally created their own information theory.Footnote 30 Like their contemporaries, who chipped away at entropy through their ingenious experiments, Stephen and Lee invented ways to circumvent the constraints put on energy by entropy. They were, of course, not the only ones, but as some of the most vocal in their struggles, they provide a valuable snapshot of a period in which thermodynamics was in flux. The editors, I argue, reinvigorated biography by mandating concision, clarity, and order, and they modernized Victorian writing practices along the way. However, their innovations remain invisible to us because of their very success. Practices the editors forged in frustration, agonized over, and clumsily imposed became ubiquitous, unquestioned standards just a few decades later. But within the records of the editors’ fifteen-year battle with chaos, we can find evidence of the Victorians’ information turn.


When Lee announced in his 1896 lecture to the Royal Society that the main goal of the DNB was to be “commemorative,” Stephen swiftly retorted in the National Review that commemoration was by no means the only aim of the Dictionary: it would also be amusing, inclusive, and accessible. Above all, though, it would be concise, a principle with which Lee agreed. Concision, of course, was a practical necessity, but embracing concision also enabled the editors to present the DNB as modern. Lee insists that “to comprise as much knowledge as possible in the smallest compass” is the first law of the national biographer and that conciseness “dictates the method” of the form.Footnote 31 Stephen offers a more vivid portrait of concision when he imagines the DNB as a “literary condensing machine” that “every student ought . . . to carry it about with him (metaphorically speaking) in his pocket.”Footnote 32 For Stephen, the DNB differs from other books in that it is not a static object but rather an active agent continually in the process of condensing. Stephen imagines the DNB as a pocket-sized, handheld “contrivance” that would make history “accessible” in ways that other biographies never could.Footnote 33 His concept of concision is particularly forward-thinking because it knots together shrinking size, constant activity, and accessibility in a way that would not actually be achieved until the twentieth century with the advent of information technologies such as the personal computer.

In searching for a model of concision, the editors do not look in the obvious places. Shorthand, newspaper articles, or business writing could have provided them with examples of concise writing, but their neglect to reference these forms allows them the illusion that their own brief form was new. Nor do they mention collective biography. In fact, they strive to distinguish “national biography” from all other kinds of biography precisely to stress its modernity. Lee was especially emphatic in his desire to differentiate national biography from individual biography, explaining that biography is like a painting, but national biography is like a map.Footnote 34 Not only does Lee conceive of national biography as a different genre from individual biography but as a different technology altogether—one that has concision at its core. It is telling that Lee borrows his definition of concision from a chemist, namely, the discoverer of oxygen, Joseph Priestly, who described the goal of scientific writing as “to comprise as much knowledge as possible in the smallest compass.”Footnote 35 Lee adopts Priestly's formula without changing a word to impress upon his audience just how modern the DNB was.

Even so, Smith proposed the DNB out of fear that Britain was falling behind France, which published a biographical dictionary decades earlier.Footnote 36 Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Belgium also began publishing biographical dictionaries before Britain. Lee, however, dismisses these endeavors as being produced under “state-aided literary academies,” bragging that Britain's own Dictionary would be produced “under the auspices of no State-aided literary academies, but by the independent and enlightened exertions of one great English publisher.”Footnote 37 Britain's Dictionary may have lagged behind the productions of six European countries, but it would be more “independent and enlightened,” that is, more modern than they were. Private enterprise had been a marker of modernity in Britain ever since the railways were privately promoted. Ultimately, however, Lee appears less concerned about Europe than China, a country whose 5,020 volumes of cyclopedias had outpaced all of Europe.Footnote 38 Lee admits China's achievement, only to belittle it, intimating that the excessive size of China's cyclopedias is precisely what makes China so “barbaric.”Footnote 39 Unlike Britain, Lee suggests, China lacks the technology of concision.

The idea of concision helped produce the DNB as a modern technology just when British cyclopedia publishing was falling behind China and Europe. But putting concision into practice was easier said than done. Concision, above all, was a labor issue, and controlling the workforce was one of Stephen's most unpleasant duties: “The sweating of articles was certainly the most trying of my duties.”Footnote 40 The expansive nature of the project brought in a new kind of worker, one with whom the editors had little experience, while the private nature of the project dictated low salaries. It was hard to find a steady pool of writers, Stephen complained, because the best writers were in demand; the worst were not up to the task; and the most experienced, the antiquarians, hijacked the subject to serve their own pet projects.Footnote 41 It was in the writers’ interest to write long entries, but the call was for short ones. Stephen and Lee not only had to retrain their contributors to write concisely but convince them that it was worth their while.

The editors struggled with contributors’ inaccuracy and timeliness, but by far their biggest headache was concision, as Stephen admits: “My greatest worry is struggling against the insane verbosity of the average contributor. I never knew before how many words might be used to express a given fact.”Footnote 42 The job fell to Stephen, who reveled in contemplating its difficulties: “Some early aspirants, I remember, whose articles I had stewed down, were simple enough to be more diffuse the next time, in order to allow for probable shrinkage. I parted company with them pretty quickly.”Footnote 43 Stephen's initial solution was to praise those who accepted his revisions, and fire those who did not. However, there were still some contributors worthy of being “trained into submission”: “One of them, whom I shall always remember with gratitude, wrote to thank me for having reduced an article by at least two-thirds, and admitted the great improvement of his style,” but Stephen lamented that this sort of gratitude was rare.Footnote 44 In many cases, Stephen's “training” consisted of little more than revising the article himself, suggesting just how hard it was to convince Victorian writers to go against their interests, habits, or aesthetic preferences.

Stephen tried various methods to cure his contributors of their “insane verbosity,” beginning in 1883 with circulating his entry for “Addison” as a model of “balance and concision.”Footnote 45 He followed up with circulars that appeared every few years. Stephen's unflagging message was “condense your own articles,” but his advice for doing so was admittedly “vague.”Footnote 46 In his original announcement of the Dictionary in the Athenaeum, Stephen advised would-be contributors to cut “elaborate analysis of character” and “philosophical and critical disquisition, picturesque descriptions, and so forth,” undercutting clear directions with the vague “and so forth.”Footnote 47 In subsequent circulars Stephen repeated his original advice, adding that writers should avoid “superfluities, sentiment, and rhetoric,”Footnote 48 but he never developed more precise language to inculcate concision, and he felt that he had failed.

Stephen's sentiment, at least, was getting through, as evidenced by Canon Ainger's quip that the editors should adopt the phrase of obituary notices—“no flowers, by request”—as the unofficial motto of the DNB.Footnote 49 The indirectness of a motto appealed to Stephen, who increasingly resorted to indirection himself, reminding contributors that brevity was “even more annoying to the Editor than to his victims,” and that producing it was the most “irksome part of his duty.”Footnote 50 Due to such indirection, the circulars lacked firmness and were begging in tone.Footnote 51 As a last resort, Stephen sent letters, which at least would carry the implicit threat of dismissal, yet in these, his advice remained the same as in the circulars and was likewise largely ignored.

Long after his work on the DNB was done, Stephen continued to ponder the problem of concision. Especially perplexing to him was that even when his contributors wanted to write concisely, they could not: “One mystery always puzzled me . . . that writers who fully appreciated the necessity could yet manage to be long-winded. One man will tell a story without introducing any clearly irrelevant remark or assertion, and yet manage to be twice as long as another who yet omits nothing.”Footnote 52 This and similar claims that Stephen makes about language being reducible by half suggest that Stephen's long struggle with concision led him to think differently about language. It took half a century for Stephen's hypothesis that language is 50 percent redundant to be taken up again. Shannon studied the statistical structure of language so as to improve the efficiency of codes, mirroring Boltzmann's study of the statistical structure of gases to improve the efficiency of engines.Footnote 53 Shannon wanted to determine how particular letters or words influence the probability of subsequent ones and in the process found that English was 50 percent redundant. Redundant matter, like the high probability that an h will follow a t, provides little information because that h is expected. Shannon's statistical analysis led him to believe that information cannot be just any old message that comes down the wire. Only what is “unexpected,” or does not repeat what is already known, like a z following a t, counts as information. Stephen never formally used statistics to study language, but his long practice of condensing prose gave him an intuitive understanding of language's redundancy.

Stephen's later circulars reflect a shift in his approach to language that incorporates his awareness of language's redundancy. He stops telling writers what to reduce and instead tells them how to reduce. In his 1895 circular, he hits upon a method: “I would invite contributors, after completing an article, to peruse it carefully with a view to determining whether each of the facts recorded is fairly certain to be useful to those who may be expected to consult the Dictionary.”Footnote 54 In squeezing out all but the “useful” bits, Stephen is directing writers toward thinking wholesale about language, wringing it of its redundancy, leaving only its informational value intact.

Reviewers came to praise the DNB for its “steady advance in brevity and conciseness,”Footnote 55 which shows that not only did Stephen teach writers to be concise, but also that he taught reviewers to value the art of concision. Ultimately, Stephen succeeds in inculcating concision, not because of what he says, but how he says it. The repetition of his message through the steady publication of circulars over a fifteen-year period represents the first sustained argument for concision in the nineteenth century. Two decades later, the American professor William Strunk Jr. published in 1919 what was to become the most influential guide to brevity ever written, The Elements of Style. In his forty-three-page manifesto on brevity, Strunk promised to “cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin.”Footnote 56 As Stephen discovered a few decades earlier, it was no easy task to produce concise writing. Perhaps that is why Strunk had to drill it into his students from the podium, “Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”,Footnote 57 as his student E. B. White fondly remembers in the preface to his 1957 edition of Strunk's book. The commanding tone of Strunk's lectures carries through to his book, as White indicates: “. . . these rules and principles are in the form of sharp commands, Sergeant Strunk snapping orders at his platoon.”Footnote 58 Strunk drilled brevity into the consciousness of tens of thousands of college students and eventually changed the way that Americans wrote. Stephen attempted to inculcate concision to hundreds of contributors, begging, cajoling, and ultimately threatening their livelihood if they failed, yet he still encountered those who simply would not or could not change their writing style.

When Lee claimed that he would cram as much knowledge as possible into the smallest space, and Strunk said that he would reduce the vast rules of rhetoric to the head of a pin, they were advancing ways of thinking that would modernize the methodologies of their fields. Never mind that Stephen had to beg and Strunk had to command; these were ideas whose time would come. By the end of World War II, brevity needed no explanation because it was taken for granted that all hitherto improvements to communications technology had been predicated upon it. By then, concision went by another name, “data compression,” but described the same concept that Lee advocated for in national biography and Strunk had expanded to all writing. Data compression describes the transmission of a message as briefly as possible, “to place the maximum amount of data into the minimum amount of time space.”Footnote 59 Data compression began early in the twentieth century with engineers at Bell Labs squeezing several conversations into a single pair of copper wires and has hit its stride with the compression of sound, image, and movie files in MP3, JPEG, and MP4 formats, respectively. Stephen's “condensing machine,” no longer a pipedream, has become business as usual in the information age.

Concision once had to be justified, even by Strunk: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph, no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”Footnote 60 Strunk's justification is worth dwelling upon because it offers aesthetic reasons for concision as well as economic ones. Whereas the economics are obvious—concision is important for the same reason that a machine “has no unnecessary parts”—that is to minimize friction and maximize efficiency, the aesthetics of concision are anything but clear. In saying that we should write concisely for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines, Strunk uses his own aesthetic preference to justify another aesthetic preference, concision. In doing so, he shrouds an economic decision to be concise in aesthetics. Concision may be beautiful, but the bottom line is that it is efficient. When Bell Labs embarked upon data compression, cramming as many conversations as possible into a pair of copper wires, they made no bones about the reasons: wires, telephone poles, and network switches were expensive. The initial research into data compression had nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with maximizing “Ma Bell's capacity to minimize the investment in new infrastructure.”Footnote 61 The DNB too was an infrastructure of efficiency, a bare-bones project, produced with a minimal investment in labor (2 editors, 647 contributors) to produce maximum output (27,236 entries, 63 volumes) in the short period of seventeen years. No wonder it nearly killed Stephen.


Lee and Stephen wanted the DNB to be clear, but they had a roundabout way of saying so. Lee approached the subject by comparing the Dictionary to a pyramid, a statue, and a mausoleum, stating that it too should speak to posterity.Footnote 62 The problem lay in how it should speak—not like these monuments whose message could be hard to decipher—but “perspicuously,” a term that Lee took pains to define: “by ‘perspicuous’ I mean that it should take such a shape as to leave no room for doubt in the mind of posterity what was the nature of the achievements or characteristics that generated in the nation the desire of commemoration. It should, in fact, offer for future ages a plain justification for its existence.”Footnote 63 When it came to giving an example, Lee faltered because he believed that there was no genre that could outshine the Dictionary in perspicuousness.Footnote 64 Stephen shared Lee's ideal but chose a different way to express it. For Stephen, the DNB should be clear like a telephone, and the task of the national biographer should be to “put us in direct communication with the man himself.”Footnote 65 Biography should put the subject “at one end of the literary telephone and the reader at the other. The author should . . . be merely the conducting wire.”Footnote 66 If the editors are imprecise, even awkward, in their attempts to invoke clarity, it is because the concept was not entirely clear in the period. Clarity was undergoing a shift in meaning at the century's end; as scientists discovered noise and its disorderly implications, they inadvertently resurrected clarity as its powerful antidote. The editors’ inchoate desire for clarity should be understood within the cultural context of that shift, especially since Stephen made an example of the telephone—an instrument that would raise quite a ruckus and ultimately usher in the information age.

When Stephen compared the telephone to the DNB, the telephone had been in use for under two decades. Shortly after Alexander Graham Bell invented the speech telephone in 1876, he began publicizing it through “telephonic concerts.” The first of these concerts, held in 1877, was detailed in dozens of articles published throughout Britain and America, which reported that a full orchestra played in Philadelphia and was broadcast into Steinway Hall in New York City to a delighted audience. The concert must have been barely audible, but only a few of the articles noted the poor sound quality and then explained it away: “The sound was like that of a distant organ, rather faint, for a hard storm was in progress, and there was consequently a great ‘leakage’ of the electric current, but quite clear and musical.”Footnote 67 Despite the storm battering the wires, the writer maintains that the sound was “clear.” It was as if audiences willed themselves not to hear the noise. Even scientific accounts omitted the inevitable noise, as we can see in Maxwell's 1878 description of the telephone: “This perfect symmetry of the whole apparatus—the wire in the middle, the two telephones at the ends of the wire, and the two gossips at the ends of the telephones—may be very fascinating to a mere mathematician.”Footnote 68 Indeed, mathematicians would find the telephone “fascinating,” but not for another forty years. Maxwell's description is nearly identical to Shannon's diagram used to present information theory to the world in 1948.Footnote 69 The difference is that Maxwell left out the noise.

In reality, telephone connections were anything but clear. Crackles, pops, and clicks made conversation difficult, if not impossible. Only after the century's turn did these distractions show up in popular accounts, and then noises erupted seemingly out of nowhere, as this 1910 account demonstrates:

Noise! Such a jangle of meaningless noises had never been heard by human ears. There was sputtering and bubbling, jerking and rasping, whistling and screaming. There was the rustling of leaves, the croaking of frogs, the hissing of steam, and the flapping of birds’ wings. There were clicks from telegraph wires, scraps of talk from other telephones, curious little squeals that were unlike any known sound.Footnote 70

These bewildering sounds—whether from man, nature, or something altogether unknown—could no longer be ignored.

It is hard to know what made these noises audible all of a sudden. It may be that when people thought there was nothing to be done about the disturbances, they ignored them. If noises were caused by rain jostling the wires, as many believed, then all one could do was avoid calling during a storm, as was advised to hostesses planning telephonic concerts. Bell, like Maxwell, did not at first see these sounds as a theoretical problem, and therefore did not try to work out a solution.Footnote 71 But the fact that the noises do become not only audible but also a nuisance suggests a shift both in how people thought about noise and how they thought about clarity. The scientific reasons for this shift could be understood by the publication of Einstein's 1905 paper on Brownian motion, a randomly skittish motion of particles suspended in a liquid, named after the Scottish botanist Robert Brown, who studied these particles in 1827. Brown wanted to understand why pollen suspended in water flitted about so unpredictably, refusing to accept the prevalent theory that they were alive. Einstein solved Brown's problem by proving that heat-producing molecules existed and were responsible for buffeting the particles here and there; furthermore, he showed that Brownian motion happens throughout nature. Einstein even demonstrated that something similar to Brownian motion occurs along telephone wires when molecules bump up against free electrons and that it is these random collisions which produce noise.Footnote 72 With Einstein's study of Brownian motion, noise could be visualized and, eventually, measured and controlled.

Einstein's work was not followed up until two decades later when Bell Labs began to hire engineers and mathematicians to study noise in circuits so that they could increase the speed and efficiency of telephone, telegraph, and radio transmissions. There was not yet a word for what these Bell workers were measuring, but Harry Nyquist, who had been attempting to send photos over telegraph lines, referred to the process as “speed of transmission of intelligence,”Footnote 73 which Ralph Hartley, who applied Nyquist's findings to radio transmissions, shortened to “information” in 1927,Footnote 74 a term that stuck when Shannon used it to introduce his information theory in 1948. Shannon's theory dealt with “sending messages from one place to another quickly, economically, and efficiently,”Footnote 75 a problem because systems always suffered noise. Disentangling that noise from the message became Shannon's lifelong pursuit. Initially, he learned to remove noise in the transmission of telephone, radio, and television signals. Afterward, during World War II, he applied his findings to radar, antiballistics, and cryptology.

Shannon's now famous pronouncement, “the fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point,”Footnote 76 is just another way of saying that the message should arrive noise-free, precisely what Lee and Stephen aimed for in another context. They, of course, did not know what noise meant as it was on the verge of being discovered, but they had an intuitive understanding of its disruptive power. Their calls for clarity seem less peculiar when considered within the context of noise. Lee's puzzling declaration that the DNB should not be like Pittsburgh, for example, makes sense only when we understand that Lee thought of Pittsburgh, a city whose name seeks to honor William Pitt, as a message being sent across time. Because Pittsburgh preserves “no memories of William Pitt” it fails to convey its message and fails in perspicuousness.Footnote 77 Lee conceives of the DNB as an instrument capable of preserving memories in the face of corrosive agents like time. Similarly, at the core of Stephen's conception of the DNB as being capable of “direct communication” like a telephone is the nagging suspicion that the DNB will fail to communicate its message. However, for Stephen, it is not time that will intervene, but an overwhelming, all-encompassing disorder. Thus, he projects a hyperbolic vision of clarity in which even the author offers no interference, acting as “merely a conducting wire” of a message sent between the dead subject and the reader. Stephen and Lee fantasize about clarity on the edge of the age of noise.

Despite their fantasies to the contrary, noise can never be excised. The second law of thermodynamics proves that order will always fall to disorder and that therefore noise will always attach itself to a message. Messages are enmeshed in noise because “noise is disorder, and it is an axiom of classical thermodynamics that disorder is easier and more permanent than order. . . . Noise always tends to add itself to messages, randomizing and distorting them, making them less reliable.”Footnote 78 But Shannon proved that noise can be controlled. Moreover, his work as a cryptanalyst led him to discover that a message can exist even in the face of extreme noise. Codebreaking involves peering into a stream of what looks like nonsense and finding the signal; encrypting involves the reverse: adding disorder to a message. Shannon's involvement with the X System, used for encrypting conversations between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, taught him that all messages can withstand noise through proper coding, leading him to prove that codes do exist that preserve order in the face of disorder.Footnote 79

In other words, Shannon found a way to cheat the second law of thermodynamics. After a hundred-year battle with entropy, it had finally been brought under control. Shannon's proof that reliable information could exist in an unreliable world elevated his theory to a universal principle. He made the concept of information so logical that it could be applied to any system in which messages are sent, from television to outer space. His theory prompted a revolution in biology and genetics because messages sent by cells, genes, and DNA could now be decoded. Shannon's insights continue to startle and innovate. Recently, in the race to compress data to make room for our ever-growing stores of information, scientists encoded Edward Muybridge's 1878 motion pictures of racehorses into the DNA of living bacteria and then successfully retrieved the films, allowing us to store stuff in life itself.Footnote 80

Little has been written about how information theory affects our more mundane forms of communication, such as writing. In the assessment-plagued university of the twenty-first century, one “learning outcome” has become ubiquitous in English and composition programs: “writing clearly and effectively.”Footnote 81 Clear writing, now expected of all college students, was barely thinkable a century ago. Clarity, not even mentioned in Strunk's 1919 The Elements of Style, first appears in 1957 in a new chapter written by White. Justifying his addition of clarity to Strunk's guide, White writes, “since writing is communications, clarity can only be a virtue.” Writing was not always synonymous with “communications.” Only after Shannon fortified the field of communications with his discoveries could such a claim be made. Before that, clarity's advantage was not readily apparent. If Strunk takes the tone of a drill sergeant in his treatise on brevity, White adopts the attitude of a salesman, giving clarity the hard sell: “Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose. It is also a destroyer of life, of hope.” He rattles off a litany of tragedies that result from the lack of clarity, most dramatically, a “death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign.”Footnote 82 White feels emboldened to speak of clarity in such urgent terms only after the war catapulted such noise-reduction technologies as codebreaking and anti-aircraft retrieval to the fore. Yet it is not quite right to say that Strunk did not notice clarity earlier. Although the word is nowhere to be found in the 1919 edition, the sentiment exists, and it can be detected at the tail end of Strunk's treatment of “brevity”: “Vigorous writing is concise. . . . This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that they avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”Footnote 83 Strunk worries about the consequences of so much brevity, as if brevity itself endangers clarity. His admonition that “every word tell,” with its subtext of “waste no words,” is a call to clarity in disguise. Strunk floats a kind of clarity that is predicated on noise reduction. Clarity emerges in The Elements of Style to guard the gates from chaos.

I have been arguing that the discovery of noise makes clarity possible and that only with the mastery of disorder in the twentieth century do we get the elevation of clarity to a universal standard in writing. Clarity is a rather murky idea for the editors of the DNB. For Lee it is only pronounceable in the most lumbering of language, “perspicuous.” Stephen turns to the new and barely understood world of telephony to express his desires for clarity. Although they do not have the right words, the editors want to keep their message intact in the face of a corrupting disorder. For them, clarity never rises to the level of concision's importance because noise exists only in their heads, but there it looms large. They never attempt to “train” their contributors to be clear because clarity was still a mystery to them. Their call for clarity, then, was purely theoretical. It allowed them to articulate their vague notion that disorder corrupts meaning, but, ultimately, they would wage their war on disorder more directly.


At first glance, Stephen's “Dryasdust” (1900) reads like any of his other rants against overaccumulation, as he typically gripes that “the historian of this century is pretty certain to shudder when he contemplates the vast masses of material.”Footnote 84 But in this short essay, written in response to the British Museum's proposal to preserve all provincial newspapers, Stephen does more than just “shudder”: he writes his most polemical piece to date. Although Stephen is still concerned with the overwhelming chaos that threatens to drag down the Dictionary, the tone of “Dryasdust” is less hysterical than that of his earlier writings because Stephen asserts control over the mountains of matter that have menaced him for decades. Like Carlyle, the first Victorian to wrestle publicly with the information glut, Stephen “writhes under the dominion” of Dryasdust (331). But while Carlyle never seems to get out from under Dryasdust's dictates, Stephen does. In “Dryasdust,” Stephen advances a methodology by which biographers can whip into order the “vast rubbish heaps” about which Carlyle complained so bitterly (331). Stephen proposes the language, imagery, and hero that will conquer entropy at last and facilitate the information turn.

Stephen addresses the matter head-on, saying, “My own life, like that of many, has been recently a struggle against the masses of printed matter which threaten to submerge any moderate household. They can be treated by very summary domestic methods; and one is tempted to wonder whether the same system might not be applied to the great public reservoir of such things” (331). At home, Stephen posits, Victorians know what to do with their trash, but in public, they have no such system. Nor are historians capable of distinguishing between waste and valuable materials; rather, they are “infected with a mania for communicating facts simply as facts.” The problem with this method, Stephen complains, is that historians only recognize one kind of fact: “Because any fact may be important, they speak as if every fact must be interesting” (331). Historians are not alone. Curators of the British Museum and the public at large do not know how to distinguish between a fact and a fact that matters. Stephen has set out to teach them.

The problem is that Stephen does not have the language to do so. The editors’ extensive use of industrial language has been noted by Atkinson, who argues that they represent the DNB as a “factory-like enterprise” to celebrate the hidden labor of workers and thereby gain credit for their own undervalued labor.Footnote 85 Indeed, industrial imagery pervades their writings, helping them associate themselves with the working classes. These images also enable the editors to express the impossibility of their colossal task in the age of entropy. If chaos is the destiny of all things, as entropy teaches, then creating the largest bibliographical project to date was doomed to fail. Stephen drew upon industrial imagery to represent his fear of failing, lamenting that he would be “dragged into the damnable thing by fate like a careless workman passing moving machinery.”Footnote 86 The second law of thermodynamics was experienced as an energy crisis that affected not just machines that were losing power, but also the people who were being pulled down with them. Read alongside his fantasies about being dragged into the jaws of a machine, Stephen's complaint that “the infernal dictionary must keep going” hints at an alternative energy source upon which the Dictionary would feed when energy was no longer infinitely available.Footnote 87 Entropic images convey a deep-seated fear that the death of the machine comes at the expense of man himself.

Relying solely on industrial language limits what Stephen can say. Take, for example, this analogy where Stephen compares writing biography to ironmaking: “to write a life is to collect the particular heap of rubbish in which his material is contained, to sift the relevant from the superincumbent mass, and then to smelt it and cast it into its natural mould.”Footnote 88 The trouble here is with the verbs. In using “sift” Stephen harps back to Carlyle's frustrations with the “totally chaotic and unsifted conditions in which materials had been left” (331). Carlyle had repeatedly recommended sifting as a way to chip away at the disorder of printed matter. But sifting is not enough; nor is “smelting” any better. Although these industrial verbs help Stephen convey the physical difficulty of dictionary work, they stop short at creating order. “Sifting” implies a mechanical action of shaking a screen until the materials are separated by size or weight; similarly, “smelting” describes an action by which metal is separated from ore through heating. To be sure, sifting and smelting are modes of ordering, but the order is built into the instrument. With sorting, however, the decisions are made by the sorter. Stephen's industrial language provides a mechanical way to separate facts from facts, but it does not provide an “intelligent” means to do so.Footnote 89

Industrial language allows Stephen to express entropy but not get out from under it. When he attempts to describe the work of the Dictionary using other kinds of imagery, he runs into the same problem. For example, Stephen compares archival work to “wandering” in a “vast wilderness,” “hewing” through a “jungle,” and plunging into a “bog.”Footnote 90 Like industrial imagery, imperial imagery expresses the hopelessly sinking feeling of entropy but provides no rope to hold onto. The kind of language that would stand up to the entropic was only just being invented by thermodynamic scientists like Thomson, Maxwell, and Boltzmann, who, in their pursuit of understanding the physical properties of entropy, were also imagining ways of thwarting it. To that end, they deployed concepts, such as “intelligence,” that could transcend physical laws of energy and allow humans to escape natural limits through their ingenuity, thereby assuring infinite supplies of energy, as MacDuffie argues.Footnote 91

In “Dryasdust,” Stephen turns away from industrial imagery and adopts language from a field he once rejected: natural history. Imagery taken from natural history enables him both to express entropy's fatal drag and to plot ways to withstand it. Stephen alludes to Darwin's discoveries as he urges historians that their job is not just to collect facts but to distinguish among them: “Millions of years ago an insect happened to be stuck in a clod of earth. Its ‘mortal remains’ when dug up may give a decisive solution of some problem of evolution. The one specimen was priceless. But if we afterwards found a whole stratum composed of similar remains they might tell us nothing more. A single locust would be as instructive as a countless swarm” (331). Likewise, if we found one document in an ancient mummy, it may have value, but if we found similar documents, “their value would decline in a rapidly accelerating ratio. They would only repeat what we already knew” (331). By drawing upon natural history, Stephen can refute historians’ mistaken notion that all facts have value because in nature “facts” are infinite. What is needed is a method to distinguish “priceless” facts from the “countless swarm.”

Stephen is searching for a way to order the immensity of materials that industrial capitalism and imperialism have generated. The language of natural history enables him to sort through and categorize these materials. Seeking ways to alleviate disorder on a much smaller scale, Maxwell and Boltzmann employed statistics to study the disorder of molecules in entropic situations. Their studies led to a theory of entropy that is “essentially identical” to the one that Shannon would articulate seven decades later when he published his theory of information in 1948.Footnote 92 Stephen's search for ways to establish order coincided with Maxwell's. Entropy happens in a closed system when the energy that supplied that system becomes unavailable. Molecules lose their heat and settle down to the same temperature as other molecules, creating balance and a high-entropy situation. Low entropy happens when the contrasts between molecules are high; for example, a glass of ice water represents a low-entropy situation because the molecules in the ice and in the water have high contrasts. But if that ice were to melt, the molecules would mix, becoming the same temperature and creating a balance. This balance is entropic because no further energy is available, and try as they may, nobody would be able to unmix those molecules.

Maxwell, however, imagines a way to remedy this entropic situation by employing a “finite being,” a fictional figure who became known as “Maxwell's Demon.” The demon's job was to do the impossible: unmix the molecules, restore order, and halt entropy. Maxwell theorized that if this tiny being would guard a hole in a box of gas, he could sort out the fast- and slow-moving molecules and thereby regain the contrast that would be capable of producing work. With this analogy, Maxwell introduces a new conception of work, one that relies not on mechanical labor but on “intelligence.” Maxwell clarifies, “no work has been done, only the intelligence of a very observant and neat-fingered being has been employed.”Footnote 93 It is not that “no work has been done” but, rather, that no energy has been expended, and work as he knew it, factory work, was not accomplished. This busy demon energizes, and therefore valorizes, a kind of work that depends not on sifting but on sorting and making order.Footnote 94 Simply by providing order, this demon defied a law of nature and changed the world, “presiding over a gateway . . . from the world of physics to the world of information.”Footnote 95 Like Maxwell, Stephen recognizes the value of order. That is why he shifts his vocabulary from industrial verbs like “collect,” “sift,” and “smelt” to verbs that make order: “arrange,” “disengage,” and “organize” (332). Stephen urges Victorians to take that information turn as well, asking them to “accumulate” less and “arrange” more: “Dip anywhere into the great ocean of history and you will bring up plenty of specimens. What is required is less to add to the accumulated knowledge than to arrange the knowledge already acquired in the significant order” (132). If the act of arranging is being empowered here, so too is the instrument that will accomplish it. The fishnet presumably used to “dip into the ocean” will only heap up the specimens. An instrument capable of picking through the mounds is wanted, something like the “neat fingers” of the being that Maxwell describes.

Maxwell's “neat-fingered being” was just a heuristic used to explain how his introduction of statistics to thermodynamics helped predict the behavior of particles in a gas. Without statistics, it would have been impossible to know the probability of the existence of a particular microstate within a system. Maxwell's “being” only appears in two letters and one footnote, suggesting that his role was marginal.Footnote 96 But this being assumed a central role after his earliest enthusiast, Thomson, dubbed him “Maxwell's sorting demon” at a popular lecture in 1879.Footnote 97 With this epithet, Thomson named the being and his actions, two things that Maxwell never did. Thomson soon dropped “sorting” from his moniker, yet a long line of commentators since have clung to it. Gold, for example, writes, “What the demon does is conceptually simple: it sorts.”Footnote 98 “Sorting” is crucial because it adds agency and choice to a thermodynamic model that has neither.Footnote 99 When Maxwell and Boltzmann introduced statistics to the study of entropy, they converted an absolute law into a probable occurrence, creating a loophole in the law of entropy. Still, it was nearly impossible that molecules would not mix and entropy would not occur. Only with the aid of the “sorting demon” could choice and agency be inserted into their statistical model, further opening the loophole, if only in fantasy.Footnote 100 That Thomson readily reads agency and choice into the being's actions suggests just how hungry he was for a way out of the “universal dissipation” to which he had condemned the age.

Maxwell also emphasizes the demon's choice when in one version of the heuristic he likens the being to a railway switchman “who should send the express along one line and the goods along another.”Footnote 101 Maxwell clarifies that the being, who in other portrayals appears to be making multiple decisions about the speed of the molecules, is actually just choosing between two options over and over again, much like a switchman, choosing between the fast and slow track with a flip of a switch. Whereas this image never gained popularity, a similar image becomes the backbone of Shannon's concept of information. For Shannon, the smallest unit of information, a “bit,” measures the choice involved in flipping a switch. The choice between “off” and “on” represents one bit of information. The more choices one has, the more uncertainty, and the more uncertainty, the more information.Footnote 102 In Shannon's terms, the demon's choices, and likewise Stephen's, would have produced billions of bits of information. Maxwell, Boltzmann, Thomson, and Stephen imagined sorting as a way to subvert disorder, using what Shannon would call “information” to conquer entropy. One, perhaps idiosyncratic, difference between Shannon and these thermodynamic scientists is that for Shannon, information is entropy.Footnote 103 Shannon's concept differed from theirs in another major way: he eradicated meaning from information. For a dictionary maker like Stephen, that would be impossible. Stephen's criteria would be steeped in meaning.

Any order-making project demands criteria, which implies its application through an intelligence. The intelligence in Maxwell's case is the demon, whose criteria is distinguishing between fast- and slow-moving molecules. As drawings from the period make clear, the demon applies his criteria with ease, even a sort of devilish glee. Stephen, however, struggles to articulate his criteria. First, he says the “interesting” facts should be saved, but “interesting” is subjective and he knows it. Aiming for objective criteria, he reaches for the methods of natural history. Stephen determines that only an insect which provides a “decisive solution of some problem of evolution” should be preserved, and the rest tossed in the bin along with his old newspapers because “they would only repeat what we already knew” (331). Stephen's criteria, new to the DNB, were already being applied across the way at the British Museum, established to house the colossal collection of the eighteenth-century collector Hans Sloane. The disorderly state of Sloane's collection reflected his old-fashioned criteria, or what might look like no criteria at all: he collected everything from everywhere around the world to illustrate “god's variety.”Footnote 104 Only after George Cuvier's Essay on the History of the Earth (1813) lent authority to the ideas of extinction and evolution did collectors begin to realize that not everything they collected was relevant.Footnote 105 Over the nineteenth century, collectors began to use scientific criteria to distinguish among their objects. Apparently, this method was not extended to all objects at the British Museum, which is what frustrated Stephen. On one hand, the curators meticulously sorted Sloane's collection to reflect the new criteria; on the other, they collected provincial newspapers with Sloane-like abandon. Unlike his peers at the museum, Stephen extended the new criteria to all objects, including facts, and with this methodology he modernized biography.

Stephen's emphasis on weeding out “repetitive” artifacts reaches a crescendo in “Dryasdust” with claims that most facts are merely “worthless . . . repetitions . . . of perfectly familiar truths” (331). Stephen's confidence has grown since he first confronted contributors who would not be concise. As we have seen, his prolonged battle with concision led him to posit that language is redundant by half, a claim that Shannon made only after studying language's statistical structure. In “Dryasdust,” Stephen is hellbent on eradicating redundancy, but he no longer consigns it to his contributors’ prose. Repetition is everywhere: newspapers, fossils, even facts are redundant. His solution—to save only what does not repeat what is already known—verges on Shannon's concept that only what is “unexpected” conveys information. All else, like an h following a t, is redundant. Stephen urges Victorians to consider that to somebody who has seen swarms, an insect is just an insect, a fact is just a fact, mere redundancies. Only when the fact can provide new intelligence should it be hailed as information. Yet Stephen's concept is not quite Shannonian “information” because Stephen holds onto the singular significance of his locust. His criteria for saving it is not merely its unexpectedness but rather the “decisive solution” it will provide for evolution—its meaning.

While Shannon intentionally linked information and entropy, Maxwell, who did more than any other thinker of his age to advance the idea that order subverts entropy, never made that conscious connection. Only Boltzmann explicitly connected entropy and information when he proposed that entropy is related to missing information.Footnote 106 And although his idea was not fully understood in his era, it has since been hailed as a bridge connecting entropy with information. Boltzmann meant that when a thermodynamic system was in a state of high entropy, information about the internal structure would be scarce, as in the example of the glass of ice water, which yields high amounts of information about its structure because the molecules are neatly ordered into water and ice. But when that ice melts, the molecules mix, and the structure becomes murky. Likewise, an orderly library is easy to navigate, but when books are strewn all over the floor, finding a book will be difficult. Stephen, like Maxwell, never explicitly states the relation between entropy and information, but it is implicit when he cautions that “the growth of a library turns the library into a labyrinth, unless it is properly catalogued as it grows. . . . You require not only a catalogue, but some kind of intelligent guide to the stores which it contains.”Footnote 107 If chaos is the ruling metaphor of Stephen's DNB writings, organizing chaos is their most heroic act. Stephen requires a hero who is up to the task.

The Index

Atkinson argues that the heroes of the DNB are both industrial workers who see their hidden labor reflected in the Dictionary, and the editors who by associating with them gain credit for their own unsung intellectual labor.Footnote 108 I would like to conclude by arguing that even as they associate themselves with workers, Stephen and Lee carve out their own space, distinct from the factory floor, and in doing so, they assert that making order is a value in its own right. This is the information turn that “Dryasdust” makes—away from an understanding of work that is tied up with energy, to a concept of work that depends on making order. The “intelligent guide” for whom Stephen yearns emerges as the hero of the DNB in the form of the “index-maker,” the order-maker par excellence. In invoking the “index-maker” as the savior of the Dictionary, Stephen is paying homage to Carlyle, the first to assert his preference for this orderly figure: “Carlyle complains piteously that Dryasdust had rarely even troubled himself to make an index. The index-maker is, I hope, becoming more active. The plan for an extensive index of scientific papers is a natural corollary from the demand for preserving vast accumulations of material” (332). Carlyle's plea had gone unheeded for fifty-five years. But in 1900, the index-maker's time had finally come. Conan Doyle had just invented the most famous index-maker of all times, Sherlock Holmes, whose index was his most powerful technology, not only because it allowed him to externalize his brain, freeing up precious space for problem-solving, but also because it permitted him to organize by subject and object, allowing quicker access to the criminal and the crime.Footnote 109 Likewise, for Stephen the advantage of the index was that it provided multiple ways to look things up, “classifying its contents according to events as well as names, to enable one to find out not only what a given man has done, but who has been the doer of a given thing” (332). Conceived of in this way, the index increases accessibility by offering multiple ways of finding information, saving users the trouble of perusing a life when what they actually wanted to know about was lacemaking.

Stephen's proposed index illustrates just how modern, dynamic, and intertwined his concepts of clarity, concision, and order were. An index would heighten clarity by freeing readers of cumbersome details, allowing them to bypass noise and get right to the message. An index would promote concision by enabling readers to head directly to their object of interest without having to wade through unnecessary verbiage. Readers could abbreviate each search, thereby experiencing concision every time they opened the Dictionary. The index is what makes possible Stephen's “condensing machine.” It is no wonder that Stephen hails its maker as a hero. It must be recognized, however, that Stephen is not just talking about the index-maker, but rather a whole category of workers not yet valued in Britain: “The index-maker, though he deserves the hearty representation of all readers, represents the lowest stage of a whole class of work daily becoming more important” (332). Like Maxwell's demon, this kind of worker has a superhuman facility with order. He (and increasingly she) is what will come to be known as the information worker, the person who makes order and by so doing makes chaos make sense.

Alas, the index-maker was just a figment of Stephen's imagination. The DNB did not get an index under Stephen's watch.Footnote 110 Like Maxwell's demon, it was a useful fiction, which enabled Stephen to imagine how to cut through disorder and get out from under entropy. But that did not stop Stephen from proclaiming that the DNB itself was “already a kind of index to British history” whose “value would be greatly increased if an index were added to it” (332). As an index to British history, the DNB was a peculiar sort of technology, capable of making order, connecting readers quickly and efficiently to their subject, crossing time and space with minimal interference, and keeping a message intact in spite of disrupting noise. The DNB would appear to be something out of science fiction. Indeed, Stephen's frequent references to posterity and his persistent use of the future tense in “Dryasdust” fuel the sense that he thought of the DNB as a technology of the future. In his final sentence, Stephen raises his desire to ignite all historical documents but swiftly corrects himself by dramatically proclaiming, “the wickedness of such thoughts need no demonstration; and the effectual way of suppressing them is to promote any system that can deal effectively with the powers of chaos and darkness” (332). With the DNB, he has done just that.


1. Stephen rarely mentions Britain's successful national biographies, including the seven folios of Biographia Britannica, completed in 1766, and Rose's twelve-volume New General Biographical Dictionary, completed in 1847.

2. Stephen, Some Early Impressions, 152.

3. Lee, “The Dictionary of National Biography, a Statistical Account,” xxii.

4. Stephen, “Biography,” 172.

5. For accurate statistics on the DNB, see Fenwick, The Contributors’ Index, xxi.

6. Fenwick, Contributors’ Index, xxi.

7. Stephen, “National Biography,” 59, 55.

8. Stephen evokes “chaos” regularly to describe the state of the archives, research methods, or dictionary making: “Biography,” 174; “National Biography,” 53; “Dryasdust,” 332.

9. Nadel, Biography, 13.

10. Atkinson, Victorian Biography Reconsidered.

11. Stephen, “Dryasdust,” 331.

12. Stephen, “Biography,” 174.

13. Hayles, Chaos Bound, 48.

14. Thomson, “On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy,” quoted in Bruce Clarke, “From Thermodynamics to Virtuality,” 20.

15. See Gold, ThermoPoetics. See also Meyers, “Nineteenth-Century Popularizations of Thermodynamics.” And see Beer, Open Fields.

16. Stephen, “Dryasdust,” 332.

17. Atkinson, Victorian Biography Reconsidered, 243.

18. Campbell, Grammatical Man, 86.

19. Hayles, Chaos Bound, 41.

20. See Byfield, “Information,” 125–32.

21. Chiu et al., Mathematical Theory of Claude Shannon, 9.

22. Shannon and Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication, 31.

23. Gleick, The Information, 12.

24. Gleick, The Information, 10.

25. Worth, Imperial Media.

26. Stephen, “National Biography,” 55

27. Stephen, “National Biography,” 55.

28. See Weaver in Shannon and Weaver, Mathematical Theory, 3. Also see Burks, review of The Mathematical Theory of Communications, 399. And see Wiener, review of The Mathematical Theory of Communications, 31.

29. See Hayles, Chaos Bound.

30. Stephen, “Biography,” 174.

31. Lee, “National Biography,” 265.

32. Stephen, “Biography,” 173; Stephen, “National Biography,” 55.

33. Stephen, “National Biography,” 55.

34. Lee, “National Biography,” 266.

35. Lee, “National Biography,” 265.

36. Stephen, Some Early Impressions, 152.

37. Lee, “National Biography,” 277.

38. Lee, “National Biography,” 265.

39. Lee, “National Biography,” 258.

40. Stephen, Some Early Impressions, 164.

41. Stephen, Some Early Impressions, 159.

42. Stephen to Norton, April 13, 1884, in Maitland, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen, 383.

43. Stephen, Some Early Impressions, 164.

44. Stephen, Some Early Impressions, 164.

45. Nadel, Biography, 49.

46. Stephen, “A New ‘Biographia Britannica,’” 850.

47. Stephen, “A New ‘Biographia Britannica,’” 850.

48. Stephen, Some Early Impressions, 164.

49. Stephen, Some Early Impressions, 164.

50. Stephen, circular to contributors, April 1888, quoted in C. H. Firth, “Memoir of Sidney Lee,” xvi.

51. Firth, “Memoir,” xix.

52. Stephen, Some Early Impressions, 164 (emphasis mine).

53. Clarke, “From Thermodynamics,” 26.

54. Stephen, circular to contributors, November 1895, quoted in Firth, “Memoir,” xix (emphasis mine).

55. Firth, review of The Dictionary of National Biography, 787.

56. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, xi.

57. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, xiii.

58. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, xii–xiii.

59. Levitin, The Organized Mind, 331.

60. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, xiv.

61. Levitin, The Organized Mind, 319.

62. Lee, “National Biography,” 258.

63. Lee, “National Biography,” 258.

64. Lee, “National Biography,” 258–60.

65. Stephen, “Biography,” 180.

66. Stephen, “Biography,” 180.

67. “Ninety Miles of ‘Home, Sweet Home.’”

68. Maxwell, “Rede Lecture on ‘the Telephone,’” 659.

69. See Shannon, Mathematical Theory, 34.

70. Casson, History of the Telephone, 121.

71. Gleick, The Information, 197.

72. Gleick, The Information, 198.

73. Gleick, The Information, 199.

74. Gleick, The Information, 200.

75. Campbell, Grammatical Man, 17.

76. Shannon and Weaver, Mathematical Theory, 31.

77. Lee, “National Biography,” 259.

78. Campbell, Grammatical Man, 67–68.

79. Campbell, Grammatical Man, 113.

80. Kolata, “Who Needs Hard Drives?.”

81. A Google search for “learning outcomes” for composition programs indicates that “clear and effective writing” tops the list.

82. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, 79.

83. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, xiv.

84. Stephen, “Dryasdust,” 332. All subsequent references to this edition are noted parenthetically in the text.

85. Atkinson, Victorian Biography Reconsidered, 248.

86. Stephen to Edmund Gosse, October 24, 1887. Gosse Papers, Br.L. BC Gosse Correspondence, quoted in Atkinson, Victorian Biography Reconsidered, 248.

87. Stephen to G. Croom Robertson, August 5, 1883, in Maitland, Life and Letters, 378–79.

88. Stephenson, “Biography,” 174 (emphasis mine).

89. Stephen, “National Biography,” 55. I am alluding to Stephen's desire for an “intelligent guide” to his Dictionary and Maxwell's “intelligent” demon. Maxwell to John William Strutt, December 6, 1870, 582–83.

90. Stephen, “National Biography,” 55, 55, 59.

91. MacDuffie, Victorian Literature and the Ecological Imagination, 74, 77.

92. Campbell, Grammatical Man, 18.

93. Maxwell to Peter Guthrie Tait, December 11, 1867, 332 (emphasis mine).

94. My observation that “work” is in flux gathers steam from Gold's brilliant reading of Dracula, in which he posits “considerable ambivalence” surrounding “the question of what constitutes work.” Gold suggests that Dracula, like Maxwell's demon, dramatizes a shift in Victorian ideas about energy and work. Gold, ThermoPoetics, 247.

95. Gleick, The Information, 277.

96. Maxwell's being appears in an 1867 letter to Peter Guthrie Tait, an 1870 letter to John William Strutt, and Theory of Heat (1871).

97. Quoted in Gleick, The Information, 276.

98. Gold, ThermoPoetics, 242.

99. Hayles argues that the demon controls dissipation through his “will.” Hayles, Chaos Bound, 43.

100. For a study of how and why thermodynamic scientists sought loopholes in their laws, see MacDuffie, Ecological Imagination.

101. Maxwell to John William Strutt, December 6, 1870, 582–83.

102. Clarke, “Thermodynamics,” 26.

103. For an analysis of why Shannon equated information with entropy, reversing scientific practice, see Hayles, Chaos Bound.

104. Delbourgo, Collecting the World, 270.

105. Delbourgo, Collecting the World, 270.

106. Shannon and Weaver, Mathematical Theory, 3.

107. Stephen, “National Biography,” 55 (emphasis mine).

108. Atkinson, Victorian Biography Reconsidered, 248.

109. The index appears in three Sherlock Holmes stories in 1891 and then vanishes from Doyle's oeuvre.

110. The DNB did not get an index until 1903, a year before Stephen's death.


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