A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar

A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar, also known as The Guide to Science or Brewer's Guide to Science, is a book by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer presenting explanations for common phenomena.[1] First published in the United Kingdom around 1840, the book is laid out in the style of a catechism and proved very popular.[2] 47 editions were printed by 1905 in English alone[3] and translations made into various other languages. A revised version was produced for the US market which was digitised and republished in 2005 as part of Making of America IV: the American voice, 1850–1877.[4]

A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar
Title page from the 38th edition published in 1880
AuthorEbenezer Cobham Brewer
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectScience education
PublisherJarrold and Sons
Publication date
1840-47? (first edition)

Although presented itself as an accurate science text,[1] the book actually promotes religious ideas, including divine design.[5]

The popularity of The Guide to Science enabled Brewer to gather material for his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable which remains a classic reference work.[6]


The object of The Guide to Science was to present answers to over 2000 questions about common phenomena.[1] There are questions dealing with the man-made objects such as candles, stoves and chimneys as well as answers seeking to explain natural phenomena such as thunder and lightning (including a mention of ball lightning[7]), clouds, dew and rainbows. Brewer intended that his book should be intelligible to a child, since children might often ask the questions he was seeking to answer, but without being so foolish as to offend the scientific.[1]

The book is separated into two or three parts, depending upon the edition, each part having several chapters. Part one deals with questions relating to heat such as the sources of heat and its effects on humans and animals, while Part two deals with questions relating to air, explaining why metal rusts in air, the operation of barometers and the transmission of sound. A Miscellaneous section[Notes 1] deals with several more nebulous questions, including questions about sleep and dreaming. Within each part, the different chapters break the questions and answers up into subject areas organised thematically.


The Guide to Science had its origin in a habit of Brewer's of making and saving notes from his reading.[8][9] He set his notes out in a question-and-answer or catechism[10] style, leaving a space for answers when they were obtained.[8] Brewer bound his book into a volume and, disregarding advice from one man of science to burn it,[8] sought to have it published. His initial offer to Thomas Jarrold to sell the copyright for 50 pounds was rejected.[2][8] Instead, Jarrold agreed to publish the book under a profit sharing arrangement.[2][8] The ultimate success of the book meant that this arrangement proved to be very profitable for both Brewer and Jarrold[8] with Jarrold later refusing to sell his share back to Brewer even when offered 4000 pounds.[2]

The exact date of the book's first publication is uncertain.[9] Brewer believed it was 1840[3] but other sources suggest 1841[3] or as late as 1847.[11] A second edition of the book was published in 1848[11][12] and two more in 1849.[11] A total of 47 editions were published with the 47th edition appearing in 1905.[3] The print runs were among the highest of any scientific book published in the second half of the 19th century,[11] and Brewer said the success of the book was almost unparalleled at the time.[1] Several translations of the book were made including a Spanish translation in 1858[16] and two French translations.[17] The French translations were themselves translated into Swedish in 1858[17] and 1890[18] and into Portuguese in 1900.[19]

An edited version of the book by Robert Evans Peterson was published in the United States in 1851 as Familiar Science; or, the Scientific Explanation of Common Things,[20] with a revised edition following in 1863.[21] These versions were edited and rearranged in order to make them more suitable for American pupils[22] and were used as a text-book by schools in Pennsylvania and Brooklyn.[23] Brewer wrote to Peterson expressing his satisfaction at the rearrangement[24] but nevertheless prepared a revised edition of his own which was published in the US in 1864.[25] This edition was digitised and republished by the University of Michigan Library in 2005 following a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as part of Making of America IV: the American voice, 1850–1877.[4][26]

Religious perspectives

Brewer said that he consulted "the most approved modern authors" and submitted additions to "the revision of gentlemen of acknowledged reputation for scientific attainments".[1][5] Nevertheless, religious rather than scientific answers to certain questions are prevalent in the book, particularly answers inferring divine design.[5] For example, although modern theories of ice formation show that most of its unusual properties result from the hydrogen bond between neighbouring water molecules,[27] Brewer suggested that the reason ice is lighter than water, expanding as it freezes, is because it has been "wisely ordained by God that water shall be an exception to a very general rule".[27][28]

Brewer was ordained as a deacon and later as a priest[5][29] and wished to provide a religious framework for science.[30] He and many other Christian populist science writers of the time presented religious themes and were able to keep them relevant to modern science in the mind of the public even after the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.[31] Part of Brewer's approach in promoting his ideas was to avoid discussing religious perspectives until about a third of the way into the book so that the introduction of these ideas would appear more natural.[5]

Reception and legacy

A review of the second edition of The Guide to Science was published by Punch magazine in 1850.[12] The book was seen to be a "very useful little work". However, in typical Punch satirical style, the reviewer disagreed with one answer that we "feel a desire for activity in cold weather" due to "fanning combustion in the blood" by instead insisting that we feel a desire "to sit cosily over a fire in cold weather".[12]

The success of The Guide to Science convinced Brewer that his readers still accepted religious explanations rather than evolutionary theory.[5] Following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, Brewer wrote Theology in Science; or The Testimony of Science to the Wisdom and Goodness of God (published in 1860) in order to demonstrate that evolution had not destroyed theological tradition and to continue The Guide to Science's promotion of natural theology.[5] The book's popularity also resulted in Brewer being sent "a large number of questions on all imaginary matters".[9][32] These questions and their answers became the nucleus of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, first published in 1870.[9][32] This latter book has long outlived all of Brewer's other publications[33] and remains a classic reference work.[6]


  1. The Miscellaneous section is included as a third part in the 1864 US edition, but is presented as a further chapter of the second part in the 1880 edition.


  1. Brewer 1880, Preface
  2. Andrews 2008, pp. 57–58
  3. Evans 1981, Chronological list of books, p. xiii
  4. "Making of America Books: A guide to the scientific knowledge of things familiar. By Rev. Dr. Brewer". Retrieved 30 June 2009.
  5. Lightman 2007, pp. 64–68
  6. Comment by the Times Educational Supplement noted on the 1981 revised edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Evans 1981)
  7. Brewer 1880, p. 11
  8. "Nottinghamshire History: Edwinstowe". Retrieved 1 April 2007.
  9. Ferguson 1999
  10. Lightman 2007, p. 67
  11. Lightman 2007, p. 66
  12. "Science in the 19th Century Peridical, Punch's Guide to the Science of Things Familiar". Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 1 April 2007.
  13. "Opie Collection, Section 'F': Natural Science" (PDF). Opie Collection of Children's Literature. Bodleian Library (bodleian.ox.ac.uk). Retrieved 2 March 2012.
  14. According to an advert on page 94 of Home, New (1862), The new home; or, Wedded life, its duties, cares and pleasures, retrieved 2 July 2009
  15. File:Guide to Science title page.jpg
  16. "La clave de Las Ciencias. Manual para el conocimiento de los fenómenos comunes de la naturaleza". CienciaNet.com. Retrieved 2 July 2009.
  17. "Nordic Authors / Ebenezer Cobham Brewer". Archived from the original on 14 March 2007. Retrieved 1 April 2007.
  18. "Hvarför? och Huru? Nyckel till naturvetenskaperna". Project Runeberg. Retrieved 2 July 2009.
  19. "A chave da Sciencia ou a explicaçao dos principales phenomenos da natureza". CienciaNet.com. Retrieved 2 July 2009.
  20. Peterson 1851
  21. Peterson 1863
  22. Peterson 1863, p. iii
  23. Peterson 1863, p. ii
  24. Peterson 1863, p. vi
  25. Brewer 1864, Title Page
  26. "Mirlyn - Ann Arbor and Flint: A guide to the scientific knowledge of things familiar". Retrieved 30 June 2009.
  27. Cavelleri, Matteo (2004), Local Structure of Hydrogen-Bonded Liquids (PDF), Stockholm, p. 8 (footnote), archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-29
  28. Brewer 1880, p. 369
  29. Evans 1981, Introduction, p. vii
  30. Lightman 2007, p. 42
  31. Lightman 2007, pp. vii-xii
  32. Evans 1981, Introduction, p. x
  33. Evans 1981, Editor's Preface, p. v


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