The Encyclopedia Britannica and the Spirit of Enlightenment

The Encyclopedia Britannica, 2nd edition, photo:wikipedia

On December 6, 1768, the first volume of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was published in London as , ‘A Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, compiled upon a New Plan‘. The Britannica is the oldest English-language encyclopaedia still being produced today. The history of its 15 editions alone would be subject of an entire book. But although it might be the most popular encyclopaedia ever printed, it was not the first.

Encyclopedias of various types had been published since antiquity, beginning with the collected works of Aristotle and the famous Natural History of Pliny the Elder. The word encyclopedia comes from the Greek ????????? ???????, meaning “general education”. Tt was reduced to a single word due to an error by copyists of Latin manuscripts. Encyclopedias were published in Europe and China throughout the Middle Ages, such as the delightful Satyricon of Martianus Minneus Felix Capella (early 5th century), the Speculum majus (The Great Mirror) of Vincent of Beauvais (1250), and Encyclopedia septem tomis distincta (A Seven-Part Encyclopedia) by Johann Heinrich Alsted (1630). Most early encyclopedias did not include biographies of living people and were written in Latin, although some encyclopedias were translated into English. However, English-composed encyclopedias appeared in the 18th century, beginning with Lexicon technicum, or A Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences by John Harris (two volumes, published 1704 and 1710, respectively), which contained articles by such contributors as Isaac Newton. The first encyclopedia to include biographies of living people was the 64-volume Grosses Universal-Lexicon (published 1732–1759) of Johann Heinrich Zedler, who argued that death alone should not render people notable. Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728), and the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1751 onwards), as well as Encyclopædia Britannica were the first to realize the form of encyclopaedia we would recognize today, with a comprehensive scope of topics, discussed in depth and organized in an accessible, systematic method.

The Britannica was the idea of Colin Macfarquhar, a bookseller and printer, and Andrew Bell, an engraver, both of Edinburgh. They conceived of the Britannica as a conservative reaction to the French Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot, which was widely viewed as heretical. Ironically, the Encyclopédie had begun as a French translation of the popular English Cyclopaedia by Chambers in 1728. Macfarquhar and Bell were inspired by the intellectual ferment of the Scottish Enlightenment and thought the time ripe for a new encyclopedia “compiled upon a new plan“. They chose a28-year-old scholar named William Smellie as editor, who was offered 200 pounds sterling to produce the encyclopedia in 100 parts, which were later bound into three volumes. The first number appeared on December 6, 1768 in Edinburgh. The Britannica was published under the pseudonym “A Society of Gentlemen in Scotland“. Releasing the numbers in weekly instalments, the Britannica was completed in 1771, having 2,391 pages. The 1st edition also featured 160 copperplate illustrations engraved by Bell. The key idea that set the Britannica apart was to group related topics together into longer essays, that were then organized alphabetically. Previous English encyclopedias had generally listed related terms separately in their alphabetical order, rather like a modern technical dictionary, an approach that the Britannica’s’ management derided as “dismembering the sciences“.

The Britannica has been issued in 15 editions, with multi-volume supplements. The 10th edition was only a supplement to the 9th, just as the 12th and 13th editions were supplements to the 11th. The 15th underwent massive re-organisation in 1985, but the updated, current version is still known as the 15th. Throughout history, the Britannica has had two aims: to be an excellent reference book and to provide educational material. In 1974, the 15th edition adopted a third goal: to systematise all human knowledge. Since 1994, there are also digital editions of the Britannica available and the website Britannica Online complements Britannica’s digital resources with more than 120,000 regularly updated articles.

At yovisto you can learn more about today’s most important online encyclopedia, the self-organizing, self-correcting, never-finished online encyclopedia Wikipedia in a talk by one of its founders Jimmy Wales.

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