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Ideas & Ingenuity Fri 10 Jun 2005
The frontispiece of the 1788 Encyclopaedia...

The frontispiece of the 1788 Encyclopaedia Britannica was set out to convey the ideals and inspiration of the Scottish Enlightenment with arts, science and technology

Scotland and the ultimate reference book


ANYONE browsing the web in search of "enlightenment" may well have come across the wealth of information now available at a site called The company that owns this online encyclopaedia is based in the US, but what is often forgotten is its world-famous product - the oldest continuously published reference work in the English language - has its roots in the enlightenment of Edinburgh.

Andrew Bell, the reference book's co-founder

Andrew Bell, the reference book's co-founder

The Encyclopaedia Britannica was first published in the Scottish capital in 1768. It was not the first encyclopaedia to make it into print, but its founders, bookseller and printer Colin Macfarquhar and engraver Andrew Bell, wanted to make sure it was the best - and that it would make a profit.

First the two gentlemen required an editor. They soon found their man - a self-taught scholar in 28-year-old William Smellie, the son of a stonemason who had blagged his way into classes at Edinburgh University. As an apprentice to the university's official printers, Smellie was an informal student but he put those on the official roll to shame, excelling in Latin, English and the natural sciences.

Messrs Bell and Macfarquhar offered their new employee the sum of £200 to produce an encyclopaedia in 100 parts, with the first appearing in December 1768, priced six pence. The instalments were not published weekly as had been advertised however, as Smellie complained: "The Editors, though fully sensible of the propriety of adopting the present plan, were not aware of the length of time necessary for the execution."

The end result proved to be worth waiting for and the first Britannica was not only a scholarly work, but packed with practical information. For example, readers were advised to cure toothache with "laxatives of manna or cassia dissolved in whey or asses' milk."

William Smellie, the master printer who agreed to become the first editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

William Smellie, the master printer who agreed to become the first editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

All 100 parts were completed in 1771, and it is estimated that 3,000 sets were sold. Smellie declined to be editor of the second edition, which began in 1776. He went on to translate works in natural sciences and co-founded the Newtonian Society and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland as well as becoming a master printer. He died in poverty and obscurity, although he is immortalised in the words of the poet Robert Burns, who described Smellie as having, "A head for thought profound and clear, unmatched/And, though his caustic wit was biting rude,/His heart was warm, benevolent and good."

Macfarquhar took over as editor of Britannica for the second and third editions, which was aided by James Tytler. After Macfarquhar died in 1793, Bell took control and appointed George Gleig, the future Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, as editor. The third edition saw Britannica's popularity cross the ocean to America. Thomas Dobson, a Philadelphia bookseller, imported each part as it was printed in Edinburgh and sold his sets to some famous customers - George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

Bell died in 1809, and while a fourth edition, edited by James Millar, appeared shortly after his death, it was essentially a reprinting of the third. A pivotal point in Britannica's history would come when the company was bought in 1812 by the publisher Archibald Constable.

Versions of the original three leather-bound editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

Versions of the original three leather-bound editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

Constable produced brochures to advertise Britannica, and oversaw the fifth and sixth editions, which were edited by Macvey Napier, a lawyer and professor at Edinburgh University. A six-volume supplement was completed in 1824 and sold well in Britain and Philadelphia.

When Napier was hired to write the seventh edition however, Constable ran into debt, having himself lent money to booksellers who went bankrupt, and he died in 1827 with his grand plans for the wider distribution of Britannica unfulfilled. However, Constable had proven the potential for wider sales of this scholarly reference work.

An Edinburgh bookseller, Adam Black, bought the company, and retained Napier as editor. While the seventh edition was not completed until 1842, after much protracted argument between Black and Napier over the number of volumes, it was a critical success. Black was even offered a knighthood by Queen Victoria, which he turned down.

After Napier's death, Black turned to R. Thomas Stewart Traill, a professor of medical jurisprudence at Edinburgh University, to edit the eighth edition. Published in 1861, it was the first to have American contributors, including the president of Harvard, Edward Everett.

On the web

But the ninth edition would win Britannica even more readers. The first to be edited by a non-Scot, Thomas Spencer Baynes, the former editor of the Edinburgh Guardian, it reflected the radical thinking of Charles Darwin. This edition was also the first to be printed in the US - distributed by Charles Scribner and Little, Brown - and for the first time American sales outstripped those in Britain.

The poor sales in the UK caught the attention of advertising man Henry Haxton and US book promoter Horace Hooper. With investment from publisher Walter Montgomery Jackson, Hooper obtained the rights to print and sell 5,000 copies of the ninth edition.

Hooper struck a deal with The (London) Times to market Britannica at a cut price. It was a huge success and led Hooper and Jackson to acquire full ownership from the Blacks, effectively ending Britannica's association with Edinburgh.

After the 11th edition was produced in 1915, Hooper persuaded his friend Julius Rosenwald, the head of Chicago-based mail order firm Sears, Roebuck and Co, to promote and sell Britannica. America would prove to be the marketplace that would launch the encyclopaedia as the definitive work of reference. But its role in the education of millions wouldn't have been possible without the vision of two Edinburgh gentlemen, Andrew Bell and Colin Macfarquhar.

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Last updated: 10-Jun-05 14:14 BST