I grew up believing that there were three pillars on which every middle-class household was built: a dictionary, an atlas, and the Clark’s table!
Our household dictionary was a Chambers with a hoary history (see https://millennialmatriarchs.com/2021/04/13/silver-tongued-orator-of-the-british-empire/). My father would often read out to us, and such occasions were always punctuated with me or my brother being asked to go and fetch the dictionary when we came across a difficult word. I am not sure why we did not bring the dictionary along with the story book, in the first place. It might have saved the interruptions. But I don’t recall we ever did that.
One of the tasks my father set us was to open the dictionary as close to the word being searched as possible. He maintained that one should be so familiar with the dictionary that we should have a good feel of where a word would be. For instance, if the word we wanted to look up was ‘signet’, at first go we were expected to open the book somewhere between ‘se..’ and ‘so..’. And as we progressed, within a few pages of the word.
The newspaper was generally the trigger for referring to the Atlas. I was a reluctant and late newspaper reader. And I think my father’s well-intentioned efforts to ask me to find obscure places and landmarks mentioned in the day’s news as part of the exercise only intimidated me and put me off newspapers even more. Political maps were a little more comprehensible than the physical maps, but neither was my comfort zone.
The Clarks Table was the third pillar. This was called for at frequent intervals when my father needed to look up any constant, any formula, any log. Being a small book, it had the tendency to get mislaid, unlike the dictionary or atlas which had their own set places. So as I recall, I spent more time looking for the Clarks Table, than into it. As we grew up and were doing our homework, if the Clarks Table was on the study table, it seemed to reassure our parents that we were seriously at work. It being the era before parents got too hands-on with regard to studies, it was a useful ploy!
Of the three, the Clarks Table was the least ubiquitous, probably confined to families who had serious science students. But my father would be sad when he came across any household which did not have all three. I have no idea what kind of conversations could possibly take place during social home-calls (frequent when we were young), which would veer around to the need for calling for the Clarks, but they did seem to happen. Because my father would often return from a friend’s house clearly saddened by the fact that there were households which did not have all these books. It was not that he was being judgmental, but he felt in his heart the disappointment that some people were being deprived of access to true knowledge!
And I let him down! Soon after we got married, my father visited us in Ahmedabad. He was there to present a paper at a scientific conference and was going over some calculations. At around 7 o’clock in the evening, he asked me for a Clark’s. And I did not have one! He was fairly taken aback, though he sought bravely to mask his disappointment. Not only had I let him down, but Raghu, a serious academic not caring to have the Tables in the house (never mind that Raghu was a professor of Finance, not math or science)! We went out and bought one the very next day, but alas, we could never quite make up!
I am sadly not able to find out much about the history of the Clark’s Table. Apart from the fact that it is now published by Pearson, and edited by Tennent, and that it ‘..contains tables with information about topics like squares, square roots…, and all the necessary data for reference purpose for science students’. I am not able to find any clue as to who the meticulous Mr. Clark was, and how the book was put together and when. And who is Mr. Tennent who has edited this? I am sure there must be lots of interesting stories about all this, but no information is available to the casual reader.
I would surmise from the fact that the older editions were brought out by a Scottish publishing firm called Oliver and Boyd, that Mr. Clark was Scottish. The firm was established in 1807 or 1808, and started by publishing books for young people, as well as abridged histories and songbooks. When the next generation took over from the founders, they established themselves very strongly in educational publishing, especially medical textbooks, and had a strong presence in British colonies. The firm wound up in 1990.
I suppose that in today’s world, we don’t need such reference books anymore. But being old-fashioned and with the conditioning I have, it remains a constant in my life that good education stands on the foundation of three books I can touch and feel!