The Earliest Encyclopædia Britannica


On the 6th of December 1768, the first part or ‘number’ of 100 thick pamphlets which made up the first ever Encyclopædia Britannica appeared in print in Edinburgh, sold for 6 pence a piece. In our times when digital versions of the Britannica  online and on optical discs can be accessed from various modern gadgets, the graft and toil it took to produce the first copies back in the 18th century is hard to imagine.

The Britannica was the brainchild of Edinburgh based Colin Macfarquhar, a bookseller and printer, and Andrew Bell, an engraver. Their encyclopaedia was meant to constitute the conservative English counterpart of Dideot’s heretical Encyclopédie  (published 1751-66). The French tome was in fact largely the translation of Englishman Ephraim Chambers’ earlier published Cyclopaedia (1728). The two partners felt that the intellectual uproar of the Scottish Enlightenment could help them produce an unpredecented, more complete and detailed work. It was the age when here in Scotland Adam Smith prepared The Wealth of Nations, Sir Walter Scott wrote novels, Robert Burns poetry, David Hume and Adam Ferguson philosophy. According to one chronicler of Britannica history, Edinburgh in the mid-1700s was “a city on the verge of a golden age, a centre of learning and a home of writers, thinkers, and philosophers, wags, wits and teachers.” There was a clear “emergence of new disciplines and a recasting of the very idea of science. (…) The label “Dictionary of Arts and Sciences” featured in the subtitle of all editions; and while this demarcated the work from the genre of “historical” dictionaries (such as that of Pierre Bayle and Louis Moreri), it cast subjects such as algebra, law, and music as “sciences,” along with astronomy, botany, and chemistry. These were among the eighteen subjects (in the first edition) discussed in “Treatises” that the editors claimed as an innovative improvement over the shorter entries in Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia.


Notoriously, William Smellie, editor and one-man compiler of the first edition, confessed that he wrote the treatises on such “capital sciences” by using “a pair of scissars [sic], clipping out from various books a quantum sufficit of matter for the printer”. (Frank A. Kafker and Jeff Loveland, eds. The Early Britannica: The Growth of an Outstanding Encyclopedia reviewed by Richard Yeo in Isis, Vol. 102, No. 1, March 2011). Macfarquhar and Bell had chosen 28-year-old scholar William Smellie as their editor and paid him 200 pounds sterling for his work. Smellie wrote most of the first edition, borrowing liberally from the authors of his era, including Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin,Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. He later said: “I wrote most of it, my lad, and snipped out from books enough material for the printer. With pastepot and scissors I composed it!” (William Smellie, at a meeting of the Crochallan Fencibles.)

The Britannica was published under the pseudonym “A Society of Gentlemen in Scotland”, possibly referring to the many gentlemen who had bought subscriptions. Weekly instalments were released finally totalling 2,391 pages in 3 volumes by the time it was completed in 1771. This first edition contained 160 copperplate illustrations engraved by Bell; iis said that three of them in the midwifery section were so clinically descriptive, including images of dissected female pelvises and of foetuses in wombs that some readers amongst which King George III tore those pages out of their copies.

This first edition was clearly an experimental work and proved to have lots of teething problems. It contained gross inaccuracies and fanciful speculations; for example, it states that excess use of tobacco could cause neurodegeneration, “drying up the brain to a little black lump consisting of mere membranes”. (Philip Krapp and Patricia K. Balou, Collier’s Encyclopedia,1992) Smellie strove to make Britannica as usable as possible; he was an enthusiastic jack-of-all-trades and often his input was less than satisfactory, for example, his article on “Woman” has but four words: “the female of man.” Despite its incompleteness and inaccuracies, Smellie’s vivid prose and the easy navigation of the first edition led to strong demand for a second, but did not participate in the second edition of the Britannica, because he objected to the inclusion of biographical articles in an encyclopedia dedicated to the arts and sciences.


On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the 1st edition, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. published a facsimile of the 1st edition, complete with age spots on the paper, this version periodically being reprinted. The original form it has been preserved in offers valuable insight into an era long gone and the durability of its format is a medium which connects two culturally divergent times. The work’s definition remains the same today as it has been in 1768: “Encyclopedias and encyclopedic dictionaries are fascinating monuments to the enduring belief that knowledge is power, and that bycompiling and systematizing information about the world, one is able to shape and control it. (…) Following the fundamental studies of Foucault and Barthes, encyclopaedias have become critical tools for assessing the values and concerns of the societies that produced them and for registering ideological shifts in diverse forms of cultural production and consumption.” (The Encyclopaedic Dictionary in the Eighteenth Century. Architecture, Arts and Crafts by Terrence M. Russell, reviewed by Barbara Arciszewska in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 58, No. 1, Mar., 1999).