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Book of the Week — An Essay Towards a Real Character…

“…Letters, the Invention of which was a thing of so great Art and exquisiteness, that…doth from hence inferr the divinity and spirituality of the humane soul, and that it must needs be of a farr more excellent and abstracted Essence that mere Matter or Body…” — John Wilkins

An Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language
John Wilkins (1616-1672)
London: Printed for S. Gellibrand, 1668
First edition

John Wilkins, Bishop of Chester, was the chief founder of the Royal Society and its first secretary. He was Master of Trinity College. Wilkins was acquainted with many of the great minds of his day: William Harvey, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. He married the younger sister of Oliver Cromwell. In 1662, he lost all of his library and scientific instruments to the Great Fire of London. He was interested in just about everything — from theology to cryptography, music to space travel. He worked on creating an artificial universal language to replace Latin as a means of clearer communication between scholars and philosophers.

In this book Wilkins discussed the origin of language and letterforms, as well as a theory of grammar and phonetics. He classified words by their meanings and assigned each class a set of typographical characters, in an attempt to create a rationally ordered language and system of symbols.


He divided the universe into forty classes, or categories, and subdivided these, and then subdivided these. To each class he assigned a monosyllable of two letters; to each subdivision he added a consonant; to each further subdivision, or species, he added a vowel. Each letter, or symbol, had meaning.


John Ray drew up systematic tables of plants and animals for the book. An index was created by Dr. William Lloyd. Joseph Moxon (1627-1691) cut the typographical characters Wilkins proposed for his language. Moxon was the author of Mechanick Exercises, the first comprehensive manual of printing and letter-founding in any language.

The first issue of the first edition appeared without any of the engraved plates. This copy, apparently a second issue, contains all of the plates, although two folded leaves of tables and diagrams that are in other copies are missing. Bound with Wilkins’ An alphabetical dictionary, wherin all English Words According to their various significations, are either referred to their Places in the Philosophical Tables, Or explained by such words as are in those tables. The second work functions as an index to the first.

University of Utah copy bound in contemporary paneled calf with covers ruled in blind.


“From what hath been said it may appear, that the measure and capacity of the Ark, which some Atheistical irreligious men make use of, as an argument against the Scripture, ought rather to be esteemed a most rational confirmation of the truth and divine authority of it. Especially if it be well considered, that in those first and ruder ages of the World… men were less versed in Arts and Philosophy, and therefore probably more obnoxious to vulgar prejudices than now they are… — John Wilkins

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