History of Encyclopædia Britannica and Britannica.com
Taking a Great Legacy into the 21st Century.
The Encyclopædia Britannica was born in 18th-century Edinburgh amid the great intellectual ferment known as the Scottish Enlightenment. It was there and then that Adam Smith prepared The Wealth of Nations, Sir Walter Scott wrote novels, Robert Burns poetry, David Hume and Adam Ferguson philosophy, and James Boswell grew to manhood and attended the university. According to one chronicler of Britannica history, Edinburgh in the mid-1700s was "a city on the verge of a golden age, a center of learning and a home of writers, thinkers, and philosophers, wags, wits, and teachers."
It was against this setting that Colin Macfarquhar, a printer, and Andrew Bell, an engraver, decided to create an encyclopedia that would serve the new era of scholarship and enlightenment. They formed a "Society of Gentlemen" to publish their new reference work and hired the twenty-eight-year-old scholar William Smellie to edit it. It would be arranged alphabetically, "compiled upon a new plan in which the different Sciences and Arts are digested into distinct Treatises or Systems," and its chief virtue was to be, in the editor’s word, "utility."
The first edition of the Britannica was published one section at a time, in "fascicles," over a three-year period, beginning in 1768. The three-volume set was completed in 1771 and quickly sold out.
Encouraged by the success of the first edition, the publishers issued the second edition in 10 volumes (1777-84). The third edition, completed in 1797 and the first to include articles by outside contributors, comprised 18 volumes; the fourth, completed in 1809, boasted 20.
The Encyclopædia Britannica first came to the United States in the form of a pirated edition printed in Philadelphia in 1790 by Thomas Dobson. Owners of that set included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.
Contributions from the leading scholars of the day began with a set of six volumes published in 1815-24 as a supplement to the fourth, fifth, and sixth editions. 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 imprint.
The ninth edition, published in 1875-89, is often remembered as the "scholar's edition." It 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, editor of the encyclopedia, applied the "higher criticism" to biblical literature. The poet A.C. Swinburne wrote on John Keats, Prince Pyotr Kropotkin on anarchism, and James G. Frazer contributed articles on totemism and taboo.
The eleventh edition (1910-11) was produced in cooperation with Cambridge University, and though by then ownership of the Britannica had passed to two Americans, Horace Hooper and Walter Jackson, the strength 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 later six supplemental volumes resulted in the twelfth (1921-22) and thirteenth (1926) editions. Contributors to those editions included Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Leon Trotsky, Harry Houdini, H.L. Mencken, and W.E.B. Du Bois. The article "Mass Production" was signed by Henry Ford but is believed actually to have been written by his personal publicist.
By the time the thoroughly revised fourteenth edition appeared in 1929, the principal operations of the company had moved to the United States. Other important changes took place. Whereas previously the editorial staff would be disbanded after the completion of a new edition, the company now maintained a permanent editorial department whose job was to keep pace with the rapid growth of knowledge. The encyclopedia began to undergo continuous revision when the company’s headquarters moved to Chicago in the mid-1930s, and starting in 1936 a new printing was published each year, incorporating the latest changes and updates. In 1938, the first edition of the Britannica Book of the Year appeared. The yearbook is still published today.
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 Compton’s Encyclopedia, the dictionary publisher G. & C. Merriam (later Merriam-Webster, Inc.), and other properties. Britannica also extended its publishing activities abroad during this period. Benton led the company until his death, in 1973. The publishing landmarks of his era were Great Books of the Western World, a 54-volume collection published in 1952 (a second, revised edition, in 60 volumes, was issued in 1990); and the innovative fifteenth edition of the Britannica, in 30 volumes, in 1974. A major revision was published in 1985, bringing the size of the set to 32 volumes.
By the 1990s Encyclopædia 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.
Britannica was an early leader in electronic publishing and new media. In 1981, under an agreement with Mead Data Central, the first digital version of the Encyclopædia Britannica was created for the Lexis-Nexis service. Britannica also created the first multimedia CD-ROM encyclopedia, Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia, in 1989.
In 1994 the company developed Britannica Online, the first encyclopedia for the Internet, which made the entire text of the Encyclopædia Britannica available worldwide. That year the first version of the Britannica on CD-ROM was also published.
The boldness of recent publishing initiatives combined with Britannica's long tradition of excellence continue to shape the company’s vision for the digital age. Nineteen ninety-seven saw the creation of the Britannica Internet Guide, a directory of the Web’s best sites chosen by Britannica editors for their quality and usefulness. In 1999 the company released the first version of the Britannica.com Web site in one of the most publicized product launches in Internet history.
While Britannica takes a leading role in electronic publishing it is also expanding its line of printed products. In the fall of 2001 the company published a new and thoroughly revised printing of the 32-volume Encyclopædia Britannica, now the oldest continuously published reference work in the English language. More printed products are planned for 2002 and 2003, including a number of one- and two-volume reference works at a range of prices. The media of publication have changed, but Britannica’s basic mission has not. It’s the same today as it’s been since 1768: to be the worldwide leader in reference, education, and learning.
© 2003 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.