Encyclopaedia Britannica

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The Encyclopaedia Britannica is one of the most comprehensive and relied upon encyclopedias published. The Britannica has been published in 27 editions, starting with the first edition published from 1768 to 1771, to the most recent edition printed in 2007. The recent editions of the Britannica are available in printed, digital and online formats, and there are a Student Edition and a Concise Edition available. Many libraries have online subscriptions as well as paper copies.


The Encyclopædia Britannica was created during the Scottish Enlightenment of the late 18th Century. In this atmosphere of intellectual ferment, Colin Macfarquhar, a printer, and Andrew Bell, an engraver, formed a "Society of Gentlemen" to produce an encyclopedia, inspired by the highly influential Enlightenment project, the French Encyclopédie of Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot.

First Edition, 1768-1771

The first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica described itself as "A Dictonary of Arts and Sciences compiled upon a new plan. In which The different Sciences and Arts are digested into distinct Treatises or Systems; and The various Technical Terms, &c. are explained as they occur in the order of the Alphabet."[1] The first edition was compiled and released in individual "fascicles", which were eventually gathered into three separate volumes, A-B, C-L, M-Z. [2]Publication started in 1768, the first volume (A-B) was completed in 1769, the second (C-L) in 1770, and the third (M-Z) in 1771. In the first edition, many entries were short, with references to large topic articles which covered large areas of knowledge in great depth. For example, the article on "anatomy" extended 165 pages, while the entries for "bone" and "brain" were one-line references to the article on "anatomy". A long article on blindness was written by the blind Edinburgh poet Thomas Blacklock.

Second Edition

Much of the second edition was written by one man, James Tytler.

"The two first lines of this song [The Bonny Brucket Lassie] are all of it that is old. The rest of the song, as well as those songs in the Museum marked T, arc the works of an obscure, tippling, but extraordinary body of the name of Tytler, commonly known by the name of Balloon Tytler, from his having projected a balloon—a mortal who, though he drudges about Edinburgh as a common printer, with leaky shoes, a skylighted hat, and knee-buckles as unlike as George-by-the-grace- of-God, and Solomon-the-son-of-David, yet that same unknown drunken mortal is author and compiler of three-fourths of Elliot's pompous Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he composed at half a guinea a week!" (Robert Burns) [3]

The Sixth edition appeared in 1823.[4]

Ninth Edition, 1875-1889

The Scholar's Edition, so-called because of the number of leading scholars who contributed articles.[5] Amongst its contributors were Thomas Henry Huxley, on Darwin's theory of evolution; the poet Charles Algernon Swinburne on the life and work of John Keats; William Morris on the history of mural decoration; James Clerk Maxwell on the concept of ether; William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) on elasticity and heat; Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay on the lives of John Bunyan, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson and William Pitt the Younger ;Robert Louis Stevenson on the lives and works of literary figures, such as Pierre Jean de Béranger, the national song writer of France; and Prince P A Kropotkin on the real conditions of life in Russia.

Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911

see Encyclopaedia Britannica Eleventh Edition

The Eleventh Edition of the Britannica is, a century after its publication, regarded as one of the best encyclopedias ever published. It ran 29 volumes, each about 1000 pages. Unlike earlier editions, the Eleventh Edition was compiled all at once and released all at once, so the earlier volumes were not outdated when the last volumes appeared. The Eleventh Edition was the first produced in cooperation with Cambridge University. Due to the authoritative nature of the Eleventh Edition, and the lapse of copyright on it, many websites and publishers have made reprint editions available. The Wikipedia initially populated a large number of its articles by copying articles from the Eleventh Edition.

Twelfth and Thirteenth Editions, 1922, 1926

The Twelfth Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was a reprint of the Eleventh Edition, with three supplemental volumes to cover all the changes in the intervening decade, a decade which was marked by World War I, with its accompanying tremendous increase in military technology, organization of industry, and the dissolution of several empires and the creation of a multitude of new states in Europe and transfers of colonies from one power to another. The Thirteenth Edition of 1926 added two more volumes, bringing the set to 34 volumes

Continuous revision

The Fourteenth edition appeared in 1928 as a joint project with the University of Chicago, which purchased ownership and moved operations to Chicago. All articles were freshly written, and the long treatises were replaced by shorter entries. Beginning in 1933, the publisher began a practice of "continuous revision", where articles are revised between printings, and not just at the creation of a new edition.

Fifteenth Edition, 1974-1994

In 1974 the Fifteenth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica saw a significant change in structure, splitting the encyclopedia into three parts: the Micropædia, with short summary articles on many thousands of topics, the Macropædia, with a small number of in-depth articles, and the Propædia, a single volume containing a structural outline of human knowledge.

Sales of the 32 volume set peaked in 1990, but by 1996 had dropped 60%. To reinvent itself online, the company, in 1996, dropped its legendary staff of 1,000 door-to-door high-pressure salesmen, already down from a high of 2,000 in the 1970s. Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia was available free or very inexpensive on home computers.

Jorge Aguilar-Cauz is the current president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. which is now a private company based in Chicago. He says the print edition was still profitable in 2008, but that sales are now mostly to schools and libraries. and have fallen to 10% of what they were in 1990.[6] Despite the initial success of Encarta, Micosoft ceased production of its CD-ROM version in June 2009 and closed its online presence in December 2009.

Internet-only edition

In March 2012, Britannica announced it would no longer publish a print-edition and instead would focus on its website, Encyclopædia Britannica Online.


  • Brown, Stephen W. "Smellie, William (1740–1795)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
  • Collison, Robert. Encyclopaedias: Their History Throughout the Ages (1964)
  • Kafker, Frank A. "The Achievement of Andrew Bell and Colin Macfarquhar as the First Publishers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica," British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 18 (1995): 146+
  • Kogan, Herman. The Great EB: The Story of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1958),
  • Kruse, Paul. "The Story of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1768–1943" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1958)
  • Loveland, Jeff. "Unifying Knowledge and Dividing Disciplines: the Development of Treatises in the Encyclopaedia Britannica." Book History 2006 9: 57-87. Issn: 1098-7371 Fulltext: Project Muse
  • Yeo, Richard Yeo. Encyclopaedic Visions: Scientific Dictionaries and Enlightenment Culture (2001), 180–87, 275–83


  1. (MDCCLXXI) Encyclopædia Britannica. 
  2. History of Encyclopædia Britannica and Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica (2007). Retrieved on 2007-04-22.
  3. The Life and Works of Robert Burns‎ - Page 285 by Robert Burns, Robert Chambers – 1857
  4. See full text online
  5. see New American Supplement (5 vol 1898) full text online
  6. Noam Cohen, "Start Writing the Eulogies for Print Encyclopedias," New York Times March 16, 2008 online