History of the Encyclopedia Britannica Part 1

About the major reference book the Encyclopedia Britannica, history of the book's creation and publishing.

The Story behind ENCYCLOPAEDIA


History: Three Scots founded the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Colin Macfarquhar, a hardheaded printer with a bent for learning, concentrated on the fund raising and printing. William Smellie, a brilliant 28-year-old scholar, did most of the writing and arranging. And Andrew Bell, an engraver of dog collars, served as illustrator. Between 1768 and 1771, the trio printed their encyclopedia a pamphlet at a time. Articles emphasized art, science, and utility. Curing of diseases in horses had a 39-page coverage, while the reference for woman simply read "the female of man." The first edition even used careful calculations to estimate the number of species on Noah's ark--177 in total.

Success of the first Britannica led to publication of a second, with the addition of history, biographies, and an appendix. Editors of the third edition (a set of which was bought by George Washington) began the practice of commissioning articles by experts in each field. Over the years, the Britannica was revised and expanded. Each time an edition came out, the editorial staff would be disbanded and salesmen would take over. When sales dropped off, a new editorial staff would be assembled to prepare the next edition. Occasionally, new features were added, but each edition was essentially similar to its predecessor.

Through the years, ownership passed from Bell and Macfarquhar to Archibald Constable & Company (1815), A. & C. Black Company (1830), and the Encyclopaedia Britannica Company of London and New York (1910), which publisher William J. Cox gained control of in 1923. In 1928, Cox sold the Encyclopaedia Britannica Company to Sears, Roebuck and Company. A Sears executive, Elkan Powell, became Britannica's president in 1932 and made major changes in sales and editorial policy.

Beginning in 1938, editors tried to cope with the explosion of knowledge by publishing an annual, Britannica Book of the Year. But the Encyclopaedia Britannica, then in the 14th edition, was no longer revered as an untouchable authority. Critics attacked obsolete bibliographies, outmoded information, fanciful zoology, and fictitious accounts such as the story of Galileo's dropping weights from the Tower of Pisa.

Ownership was transferred to the University of Chicago in 1943. At first the university was hesitant about accepting the encyclopedia as a gift from Gen. Robert E. Wood, chairman of the board of Sears, Roebuck and Company. But Sen. William Benton, then vice-president of the university, was so enthusiastic that he offered to put up his own money as working capital. Benton, who had a background in advertising, saw the need for product innovation--an encyclopedia

that would serve young students and lay readers as well as scholars. Under Benton's guidance, sales of the encyclopedia increased 50 times over.

Modern Operation: In 1960, Encyclopaedia Britannica entered into a contract with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions for a study which would recommend desirable changes. After five years of joint commitment, a board of distinguished scholars accepted the brainchild of Dr. Mortimer Adler, who proposed the creation of three encyclopedias rolled into one--Britannica 3.

The threefold division consists of the Propaedia, an index of knowledge which serves as a blueprint for the encyclopedia as a whole; the 10-volume Micropaedia, an alphabetized miniencyclopedia capsulizing basic information about its subjects with references for further information in the 19-volume Macropaedia, which provides in-depth treatment of its topics. Some of the Macropaedia articles are book-length, such as the 146-page entry on China.

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