Thursday, May 28, 2009


Strang how things happen. A friend tipped me off to an article Fom Here to Divinity in the Sunday Times by writer and novelist Tim Lott which begins:

'As soon as I lost my faith in God at around the age of 14, I started looking for something to fill the God-shaped hole. Just a few years later I discovered the spiritual possibilities of science after stumbling on a remarkable book called An Index of Possibilities. Eschewing equations and textbook pedantry in favour of cartoons, humour and wild graphics, the book explained in layman’s terms the remarkable philosophical and theological implications of relativity, quantum theory, gravity and other science fundamentals. Index suggested that what I had thought a tiresome academic discipline could actually stimulate the imagination rather than murder it.'

This was the first name-check for the Index for what seems like decades. A number of conversations with Tim ensued which led me to write down something of those days when, with a crew of like-minded crazies, most of us in our 20s, we set out to produce an encyclopaedic work of strangeness and charm. There must be many Index readers out there. Hope to hear from some of you. What follows is not an official history but a first attempt of what was one of the formative experiences of my working life.


The late 1960s/early 1970s were a time of considerable social turmoil, of experimentation, of protest – above all, of new thinking. Millions of young people across the world were searching for new ways of living, in building a counter-culture in opposition to the establishment.

In the USA, The Whole Earth Catalogue (a huge counter-culture publication of alternative

information, tools and lifestyles, produced by Stewart Brand) sold a million copies and we were originally commissioned by Oliver Caldecott and Dieter Pevsner (bless their cotton socks) of Wildwood House in the UK to produce 'The Great British Catalogue' along similar lines, in the hope that we could emulate that success.

[There's a lovely memoir of Wildwood House on Elain Elkington's blog. Scroll down and look for Alternative London: TEST and Wildwood]

So a small group of four of us set off down that road but it soon became clear that the book we were seeking to produce was growing into something very different.

One important aspect of this change of perspective was our discovery of modern science and our interest in finding ways of popularising science. In this we were ahead of the times. For instance, the New Scientist at that time was still a stodgy black and white journal. Omni, the first pop science magazine, funded by Bob Guccione, wasn’t published until 1978.

Our aim was to try and encompass the breadth of what we saw at the time as a new revolution in thinking in a series of five volumes that took broad general themes – Energy & Power, Structures & Systems, Communications, Down-To-Earth Life and Survival Facts, and Inventions,

Discoveries, Explorations, Games containing cross-referenced information from not only many areas of science but also mysticism and religion - to form a new kind of encyclopedia for a new age, which we named initially The Catalogue: An Index of Possibilities. The sub-title took over.

When the book was signed up by Andre Schiffrin of Pantheon Books in New York, he likened us to the French Encyclopediasts who, between 1751-1772, produced twenty-eight volumes of their Encyclopedia, which captured and embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment.

The Team: (Back) George Snow and Richard Adams (designers) with John May (centre); (Middle) Michael Marten, Nadine Seton, Lee Torrey; (Front) John Trux, John Chesterman

The first volume, a monumental effort by an eventual main team of 10, working together for more than two years, was widely celebrated at the time of its publication in 1974 as a unique book, not only for it’s the broad sweep of its written content but also the verbal and visual style in which it was delivered.

We described it thus: ‘The huge range of subjects is presented thematically, using feature articles, biographies, chronofiles, quotation and psychodramas to achieve an effect which combines the feel of an encyclopedia with elements of magazines, wonder books and comics.’

A huge factor in the book’s success was the superb original design layout by Richard Adams and George Snow and the more than 50 original illustrations, comics and diagrams.

Our background in the underground press meant that the layouts were slightly anarchic, and that the book was irreverent, iconoclastic and laced with an in-house humour.

ILLUSTRATIONS: Aleister Crowley by Edward Bell; the opening picture for the Mind section by Bill Sanderson; diagram of the Spectrum by John Chesterman.

During the book’s production, our office at 2 Blenheim Crescent with its giant round table and huge library, catalogued according to a unique classification system based on Roget’s Thesaurus, became a mecca for druids, dowsers, airship builders, particle physicists, ecologists, alternative technologists, healers of many disciplines, Sufis, scientists and sages of all denominations. 'Future Shock' author Alvin Toffler came round for tea, Oxford dons invited us for supper, Chrissie Hynde tried to steal on of the first copies.

The book was finally published in 1974 to some hoopla.

Arthur Koestler called it: ‘A promising experiment in coping with the information explosion.’

The Evening News said it was ‘perhaps the most remarkable paperback yet produced.’

Bill Butler in Time Out called it ‘one of the best alternative books to come out of Britain to date.’

Features appeared in The Times by Caroline Moorhead and in the Sunday Times by Philip Oakes.

Ronald Fletcher, in an extensive review entitled ‘Shock and Engagement’ in the Times Education Supplement wrote: ‘An index of possibilities it is – punching, provocative, unpretentious, alive, extravagant – but always seriously engaged…It is, above all, alive to the complexity and challenges of our time. It is comical, outrageous, provocative, frightening.’

In fact, Volume 1 was to be the only completed work; eighteen months into Volume Two we had to throw in the towel and put our energy into a new project – Worlds Within Worlds – the first popular book to capture a wide range of scientific imagery – which sold widely, was serialised in the Sunday Times magazine, won an award from the New York Academy of Sciences and led directly to the foundation of the Science Photo Library, which for the next 30 years continued to supply publishers and publications worldwide with state-of-the-art imagery.

The Index sold well on its first publication, an estimated 60,000 copies in the UK and US and in addition I believe there was an Australian edition. A measure of its success was not only the reviews and sales but also the continuing correspondence and compliments we received from all over the world. The Index touched a chord with many.

In the subsequent years, the cult of the Index has continued to grow. Original readers are now reporting that their young teenage sons and daughters are equally intrigued by the book’s style and content. Second-hand copies are rarer than hen’s teeth and pricey. So much for the past.

Previous Mentions of the Index:

To explain. That's Tesla on the front of The Index. We discovered him in the early 70s and have loved the man ever since. Strangely or not, Indexer Michael Marten was in Portland, Oregon for a show of his photographs recently and picked up a copy of the 'Science Times' supplement of the New York Times. The headline is 'A Battle to Preserve A Visionary's Future' and the excellent piece by the fine science writer William J. Broad concerns the struggle over the site of Tesla's giant tower and laboratory at a 16-acre site called Wardenclyffe on Long Island. A science group want to turn it into Tesla museum and education centre and wants the owners to donate the land. The Agfa Corporation want to sell it. (There's some fabulous pictures from Tesla's laboratory, one of which became the Index cover, on a slideshow accompanying the web article.

Perhaps they should ask David Bowie for some help, who played Tesla in the movie The Prestige.


Two linked stories, the first documenting a correspondence I had while working on the Index with Gerard Piel, the publisher of 'Scientific American', who wrote a history of the magazine
for us.

The following story is linked through a review of our second book Worlds Within Worlds in Scientific American.

Interesting Index-type links found while looking for something else:


Unknown said...

Great Blog. I Was Lucky to be one of the few who read the Index twenty five years ago. I have been looking for a copy ever since. Is there any PDF files somewhere or will I have to find and buy the book. How much would it cost??? Ballpark figure of course. This is a trip to say the least. Thanks for the awesome blog.


Unknown said...

I was just commenting to my college-aged son how a large paperback book had caught my eye in the book store of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro when I was studying there in 1974 and how that book (on prominent display in my library - with its torn and dog-eared cover - had changed my life. How it had struck a responsive chord within me. How it had made me a better man. Not just through the knowledge contained within, but through the perpetual curiosity it has bred within me.

Glenwood, MD, USA

Nigel R. said...

Cripes, hadn't thought about this for years. Pretty sure I can blame my bad A level results on the book as my mind was seriously blown and not able to go back to the piddly non-cosmic stuff. Just ordered a copy for about $2 off Amazon, mainly out of shock that copies still exist. I think mine disintegrated by the time I went to college in '76.

Jakartass said...

I've searched the net many times for something about this wonderful, life-changing book. I can only echo your other commentators.

I was squatting in London at the time (Charrington St., Rectory Gardens) when I got my copy, now long lost as I've been in Indonesia for 20+ years.

But, I still challenge assumptions and consistently ask "Why not?"

Many thanks.

Unknown said...

I remember as a teenager finding what I think is the same book in the Ottuwa Public Library. It fit the general condition as described on the other blog comments, but it inspired more than many books in better condition.

Redspan said...

I bought a copy in about 1975 and read it cover to cover. It was one of many books on similar subjects at the time but it stood out as something special. If I were to find a copy now I'd snap it up, re-read it, and pass it on.

I see people sharing similar ideas today on social media.

Joly MacFie said...

I bet I'm the only guy knows ALL of you guys AND David Weinberger!

Unknown said...

I was obsessed with this book in the late 70's. Providing all I needed for an alternative view on things from my perspective of the Midlands.
I have just refund my copy and presented it to my 15 year old daughter who is putting her head over the parapet of life, who knows where that will take her.
Thank you