Open source in 1859

Open source in 1859

I’m reading The Professor and The Madman, a history of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Before the OED, first published in the late 19th century, there wasn’t really a fully formed English dictionary. Those that existed were mere subsets of the language. The lexicon included was at the sole discretion of the editor, reflecting what the editor thought of as appropriate and sufficient English. Some lacked etymology. Some lacked pronunciation. Each lacked some component that one would today associate as a foundational feature of a dictionary.

In the mid-1800s the London Philological Society, a group of intellectuals established to “investigate and promote the study and knowledge of the structure, the affinities, and the history of languages”, finally grew frustrated enough with the quality of current dictionaries. They embarked on a project to assemble a new dictionary with greater ambitions than that of any English dictionary editor prior.

The OED attempted to compile all words in the English language, determine the etymology of each word, calculate the time and place of its origin in text, and catalog the changes of its definition and usages through the span of its lifetime. Its editors did not wish to be the gatekeepers but merely the stewards, to welcome and accept all words, both common and uncommon. The editors sought to compile the entire English language in a single set of tomes.

An obvious understatement, but one that bears making explicit: Putting together a dictionary was an enormously huge task, an undertaking that would span many lifetimes. It was a Herculean task that could not be done by a single person. By the end, it would take over 25 years from the start of work to when the first portion was published.

To achieve the manpower necessary to complete the dictionary, the editors constructed the project to take on a form similar to that of an open source project:

“The undertaking of the scheme…was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature - and to comb the London and New York newspapers and the most literate of the magazines and journals - must be instead ‘the combined action of many.’ It would be necessary to recruit a team - moreover, a huge one - probably comprising hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers.”1

On the merit of the idea:

“Such an idea, obvious though it may sound today, had never been put forward before…it had a rough, rather democratic appeal.”2

The OED team issued a call to volunteers3 to help read through material from a specific period of history, looking for a specific word. They would submit slips of paper with their findings. At first, volunteers were excited and ambitious: the editors projected 100,000 slips of paper, but received more than six million. With the influx of volunteer work, the editor “had the bright and enduring idea of hiring a team of subeditors - whom he would interpose between the volunteer readers, now gaily sending in their slips of paper with the necessary questions - and the editor himself”.

At some points, there was some disillusionment from the volunteers: “[the editor] had not the finger to keep the hundreds of volunteers enthused, and so, slowly and steadily, they simply stopped reading, stopped sending in the slips. It seemed to many an insurmountable task…the dictionary was well and truly stalled. Perhaps a victim of its own massive ambition.”

While reading about this process, I couldn’t help but think how comparable this was to how an open source project might be run today. It’s strikingly similar: A large, ambitious task that can’t be completed by a single person or even a small group engages and leverages the public community for support. The public community is galvinized by the exciting project and contributes their own time and effort to this project, expecting no compensation in return. While the public can participate and submit word slips (PRs), ultimtely a group of subeditors (maintainers) are in control over what is or isn’t submitted into the dictionary. There is some annoyance with the project owners by the public due to the perceived slowness of the project, and participation slowly ebbs over time. Finally, the bulk of the work is finished, but the work is never complete. New words (features) are introduced and some words change & must be updated (bug fixes). The project team, the Philological Society of London, also found a corporate sponsor with Oxford, allowing the editors to be provided with the resources needed to work solely on the project.

The system worked, though it did take awhile. After beginning work in June of 1857, the completion of the first volume did not come until 1928, a span of 71 years. Based on that timeline, open source still has a ways to go: the oldest open-source project still in use is the GNU project, announced a mere 37 years ago.

  1. From The Professor and the Madman 

  2. From The Professor and the Madman 

  3. The proposal: