Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell
In 1768 - an era sometimes referred to as the
"Scottish Enlightenment" because it was the age of Adam Smith, Robert Burns,
James Watt, David Hume, Sir Walter Scott, and others -- two entrepreneurial men in
Edinburgh hired an editor and charged him with creating a way to capture and make
available the new knowledge that exploration and science were producing.
The result, three years later, was the Encyclopędia Britannica:a three-volume
"Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, compiled upon a new plan."
The editor, William Smellie, introduced the new work in his Preface with these words:
"Utility ought to be the principal intention of every publication. Wherever this
intention does not plainly appear, neither the books nor their authors have the smallest
claim to the approbation of mankind."
could be more characteristically Scottish than this determination to be useful. And
nothing could be more useful to the cause of civilization than a determination to serve
mankind's need to know.
This has been the Britannica Mission for more than 230 years.
Britannica was conceived and founded in 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland, by Colin
Macfarquhar, a printer, and Andrew Bell, an engraver. The two formed a "Society of
Gentlemen" to publish the work and engaged William Smellie to edit it.
The First Edition of Britannica appeared in weekly installments over a three-year
period; the three-volume set was completed in 1771, and the printing soon sold out.
The success of the First Edition encouraged the publishers. The Second Edition of 1777-84
ran to 10 volumes; the Third, completed in 1797 and the first to include articles by
outside contributors, comprised 18 volumes; and the Fourth, completed in 1809, boasted 20.
The recruitment of outstanding academic and literary authorities to write for the
encyclopędia began in earnest with a set of six volumes published in 1815-24 under the
title 'Supplement.' Contributors included Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo,
James Mill, and Thomas Young, whose pioneering efforts to penetrate the mystery of the
Egyptian hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone first saw light of day under the Britannica
The Encyclopędia Britannica first came to the United States in the form of a
pirated edition printed in Philadelphia in 1790 by one Thomas Dobson. Among its purchasers
were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.
The Ninth Edition of 1875-89, remembered as the "Scholar's Edition," embodied as
no other publication of the day the transformation of scholarship wrought by scientific
discovery and new critical methods. In its pages Thomas Henry Huxley propounded Darwin's
theory of evolution and W. Robertson Smith (joint and later sole editor of the Ninth)
applied the "higher criticism" to biblical literature. In other pages, the poet
A.C. Swinburne wrote on "John Keats," Prince Pyotr Kropotkin expounded
"Anarchism," James G. Frazer looked at "Totem" and "Taboo,"
and James Clerk Maxwell explained "Ether."
The Eleventh Edition (1910-11) was produced in cooperation with Cambridge University, and,
though by then ownership of Britannica had passed to two American booksellers and
entrepreneurs, Horace Hooper and Walter Jackson, the ebullience and confidence of much of
its writing marked the high point of Edwardian optimism and perhaps of the British Empire
itself. The addition of three and then six supplemental volumes yielded the Twelfth
(1921-22) and Thirteenth (1926) editions. By that time contributors included the likes of
Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Leon Trotsky, Harry Houdini, H.L. Mencken,
and W.E.B. DuBois. (The article "Mass Production" was signed by Henry Ford, but
almost certainly his personal publicist actually wrote it.)
The wholly new Fourteenth Edition appeared in 1929, by which time the principal operations
of the Encyclopędia company had been moved to the United States. Soon afterward the
practice of continuous revision of the content was adopted. (Previously, the editorial
staff had been disbanded upon the completion of a new edition; now it became permanent.)
From 1936 annual printings, incorporating the latest revisions, were issued.
In 1943 William Benton, a founder of the advertising agency Benton and Bowles and later a
U.S. senator, became chairman of the board and publisher. Under his leadership the company
expanded by purchasing the Compton's Encyclopedia, the dictionary publisher G.&
C. Merriam (later Merriam-Webster, Inc.), and other properties, and by extending its
publishing activities abroad.
By the 1990s Encyclopędia Britannica, Inc., had produced or was at work on encyclopedias
and other educational materials in Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Italy, France, Spain,
Latin America, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere. The publishing landmarks of the
Benton era, however, were without doubt the Great Books of the Western World, a
54-volume collection published in 1952, and the innovative Fifteenth Edition of Britannica,
published in 30 volumes in 1974.
Britannica was an early adopter of the electronic revolution in publishing.
Phototypesetting was brought in-house in the 1960s, and a fully computerized editorial and
publishing system was in place for work on the Fifteenth Edition. In 1989 Britannica
announced the first multimedia encyclopedia on CD-ROM, and by 1993 it had made the entire
text of the Encyclopędia Britannica available on the Internet, becoming the
world's first online encyclopedia. The daring and ingenuity of that forward-looking
publishing decision, combined with the long tradition of excellence that is uniquely
Britannica's, continue to shape the company's drive into the Information Age. Which brings
us to the present: Britannica.com Inc.
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