General English-language encyclopædia

"Beginning with the 11th edition, the Britannica gradually shortened and simplified its articles in order to broaden its North American market." - wikipedia

The Encyclopædia Britannica is one of the most well-known and respected general encyclopædias in the world. It is also probably the oldest popular English-language reference, the first edition being published in Edinburgh in 1768, under the title "A Dictionary of Arts and Sciences".


Conceived by printers Andrew Bell and Colin Macfarquhar, and edited largely by William Smellie, it was published in three volumes, the last being published in 1771. With 2,391 pages and 160 engraved illustrations, it must have made a tremendous impact, being not only broad both in scope, but having a depth of research. Despite this, the organisation of the work made it easy to use, combining both comprehensive articles on more important subjects, and shorter articles on technical terms.

The success of the first edition prompted a more ambitious second work, ten volumes with 8,595 pages edited by James Tytler. Again, it was released in parts between 1777 and 1784, and was much broader in scope than the first, incorporating more biographies and geographic information, in addition to expanding on many of the articles from the 1768 publishing. The third edition was marred by Macfarquhar's death part way through, leaving some gaps in the consistency of the work.

19th Century

By the nineteenth century, the fourth edition was ready, appearing between 1801 and 1809 in 20 volumes, edited by James Millar, a physician and natural scientist, and corrected the omissions of the third edition.

During the period between 1815 and 1824, a supplement was produced to the 4th, 5th and 6th editions, and was a dramatic step forward in the evolution of the Encyclopaedia. Instead of all the articles being written based on research carried out 'in-house', they were prepared by specialist British and French scholars, and the articles signed as such. This practice is still carried on today, with the result that researchers can cite, not just the Encyclopaedia, but also the author, as the source.

The other development at this time was the acquisition of the copyright by the Edinburgh publisher Archibald Constable, although he went bankrupt in 1826, and died the next year. The Britannica was bought out by Adam Black, and the seventh edition released between 1830 and 1842. This broke new ground, in not only being a complete revision of previous editions, but including a comprehensive index, making research even easier.

The ninth edition (1875 - 1889) was edited by Thomas Baynes, in conjunction with William Robertson Smith, who continued the work after Baynes' death in 1887. This edition became known as the "scholar's edition", and is memorable for its treatment of many controversial issues in the debated arenas of science and religion. With over 1,100 contributing scholars from America and Europe, it was a masterpiece.

20th Century

In 1901, the Britannica was acquired by the American publisher, Horace E. Hooper, although it retained close links with Britain, the tenth edition being sponsored by The Times, and the eleventh in conjunction with the Cambridge University Press. The work changed hands many times after that, between Sears Roebuck and William Cox, and back to Sears Roebuck in 1928.

The first Junior version of the work was published in 1934, based on Weedon's Modern Encyclopedia.

Further developments ensued - Sears Roebuck began a direct-sales campaign in 1932 to boost sales, and the work began a process of continuous revision. This meant that, instead of new editions at long intervals, the whole work was revised and reprinted each year. In 1938 the first Britannica Book of the Year was published, covering significant developments of the preceding year. After 1941, William Benton obtained the rights, and set up Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., with its headquarters in Chicago. 1952 saw the publication of Great Books of the Western World, and in 1974, the fifteenth edition had yet another innovation, the work being divided into three parts. These were (and are): the Micropaedia (Ready Reference), Macropaedia (Knowledge in Depth), and Propaedia (Outline of Knowledge).

Today's Britannica

Finally, in the 1990s, it was released onto CD-ROM, and the Britannica Online internet-based encyclopædia was also set up in 1994, both providing the same research materials at a much lower cost. The online edition has now (2012) become so popular that the print edition is now discontinued. This is a sad day for those book-sniffers among us that will miss going to the groaning bookshelves to open a volume of delight.

The Britannica remains a primary source of information for millions, whether at home, work, school, college or university. It shows little signs of aging, and will doubtless remain a household word among all interested in gaining and expanding knowledge.

List of Editions

| Edition | Publication | Editor/s             | Pages   | Vols. |
|         | Date/s      |                      |         |       |
| 1st     | 1768 - 1771 | William Smellie      |  2,391  |  3    |
| 2nd     | 1788 - 1797 | James Tytler         |  8,595  |  10   |
| 3rd     | 1788 - 1797 | Colin Macfarquhar    | 14,759  |  18   |
| 4th     | 1801 - 1809 | James Millar         | 16,033  |  20   |
| 5th     |             | James Millar and     |         |  20   |
|         |             | Thomas Bonar         |         |       |
| 6th     |             | Charles Maclaren     |         |  20   |
| (supp)  | 1855 - 1824 | Macvey Napier        |         |       |
| 7th     | 1830 - 1842 | Macvey Napier        | 17,101  |  21   |
| 8th     | 1852 - 1860 | T.S. Traill          | 17,957  |  21   |
| 9th     | 1875 - 1889 | Thomas Baynes        |   n/a   |  24   |
| 10th    | 1902 - 1903 | various *            |   n/a   |  35   |
| 11th    | 1910 - 1911 | Hugh Chisholm        |   n/a   |  29   |
| 12th    |        1922 | Hugh Chisholm        |   n/a   |  32   |
| 13th    |        1926 | Franklin Hooper *    |   n/a   |  35   |
| 14th    | 1926 - 1929 | Franklin Hooper *    |   n/a   |  24   |
| 15th    |        1974 | various *            |   n/a   |  32   |
* Supporting notes:

  • The editors of the 10th edition were Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace, Hugh Chisholm, Arthur T. Hadley, and Franklin H. Hooper
  • 12th co-edited by Franklin Hooper in New York
  • 13th and 14th also supported by J.L. Garvin in London
  • Mortimer J. Adler, William Benton, and Charles E. Swanson supervised an editorial team

Primary sources:
The Encyclopædia Britannica

Regarding the original statement that it was the oldest, gn0sis says "compilers of the Er Ya (compiled during the Qin dynasty, c. 300 BC) might care to dispute that. Even Denis Diderot's L'Encyclopedie, the source of the word, predates the Britannica by some 20 years (first volume published 1751, albeit only completed in 1771)". I have made appropriate corrections.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.