Is this the first ever example of crowd-sourcing?

Twelve mighty volumes; 414,825 words defined; 1,827,306 illustrative quotations used… The total length of type – all handset, for the books were done by letterpress, still discernible in the delicately impressed feel of the inked-on paper – is 178 miles, the distance between London and the outskirts of Manchester. Discounting every punctuation mark and every space – which any printer knows occupies just as much time to set as does a single letter – there are no fewer than 227,779,589 letters and numbers.

Do you know this book?

Probably – the quote above is describing the first ever edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and it may well be one of the first documented examples of “crowdsourcing“.


What is crowdsourcing?

The Wikipedia definition of crowdsourcing is: “the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to a large group of people or community (a crowd), through an open call.”

And it is exactly what made the making of the OED possible.

The scope of the task:

In his speech to academics, in the London Library on Guy Fawkes day 1857, Richard Chenevix Trench set out his Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It was to build an English dictionary that “should be a record of all words that enjoy any recognised life span in the standard language”.

He envisaged a dictionary that would:

  1. List every word in the English Language
  2. For each word, have the quotation that represents the first time that word was ever written down
  3. For each word, have sentences to show every meaning and every possible usage – obselete or modern.

Can you imagine for a moment the scale of this project?

The task would be gigantic, monumental and – according to the conventional thinking of the times – impossible.

That’s a hell of a BHAG.

So where does crowdsourcing come into it?

The undertaking of the scheme, he [Trench] said, was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature… It would be necessary to recruit a team – moreover a huge team, one probably comprising hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers.

Sound familiar to you? Think no further than Wikipedia.

How about an open call to the public to submit every single word in the English language plus quotations plus definitions past and present? Not only that, but to do it entirely by mail?

The first editor, Herbert Coleridge, designed a stack of pigeon holes to accommodate 60-100,000 slips of paper that would come in from volunteers and estimated that the first volume of the Dictionary would be available in 2 years.

The reality? 6 million slips of paper came in from volunteers, it took 20 years to complete the first volume and 70 years to complete the entire Oxford English Dictionary.

At least now with the internet, we can streamline the crowdsourcing process. It’s humbling to think that this scale of project would be undertaken without it…

Surgeon of Crowthorne

This is just a small part of the incredible story of the making of the OED as told by Simon Winchester (@simonwinchester) in “The Surgeon of Crowthorne – A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words“. I highly recommend reading it. Brilliantly written, it’s part tragedy, part history, part inspiration and has one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” story lines that will keep you wanting to find out more.

PS: A small irony: When I checked originally in the Crowdsourcing article in Wikipedia, there was no mention of the Oxford English Dictionary in the “Early Examples” section of the article. So I decided to make my first ever contribution to Wikipedia. Crowdsourcing in action!

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