Conceived, compiled, printed and published entirely in Edinburgh, the Britannica’s first edition was undertaken at considerable financial risk by three young tradesmen, none of whom had published anything previously. The two principal partners, who would retain the copyright of its first three editions, were printer Colin Macfarquhar (1744-1793) and engraver Andrew Bell (1726-1809).
Macfarquhar, a wigmaker’s son, had just opened his printing firm in 1767. Bell, a baker’s son and an apprentice of Scotland’s leading engraver Richard Cooper, established his reputation as an engraver through pioneering work for ‘Scots Magazine’. There, he met William Smellie (1740-1795), himself a master printer, and editor of the magazine from 1760 to 1765. Smellie agreed to compile the Britannica’s first edition for a fee of £200, more than Diderot received for his efforts editing the ‘Encyclopédie’, but nothing like the approximately £25,000 Bell and Macfarquhar would jointly accrue from the Britannica’s first three editions.
Smellie was uniquely qualified to establish the Britannica ‘brand’. Unlike Bell or Macfarquhar, and probably all the other tradesmen in Edinburgh, he was learned, attending Edinburgh’s High School before studying at the University. Under his editorship, ‘Scots Magazine’ adapted the practices of an encyclopaedia, something Smellie emphasised in introducing the 1762 volume, describing it as “a work calculated to promote knowledge, and inspire the reader with the love of it”.
While Bell and Macfarquhar kept their politics to themselves, Smellie was a vocal proponent of a free press and especially of the need for knowledge to be made accessible to all who sought self-improvement. He opened his preface to the first edition with the assertion that “utility ought to be the principle intention of every publication”. To this day that succinct observation remains the motto of the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’, even in its digital form.
The first edition emphasised two themes: modern science and Scottish identity. The articles on anatomy and Scots Law were groundbreaking and controversial. Still, that first Britannica had a less than auspicious beginning. Production costs depended entirely on the sale of subscriptions, for which the novice proprietors were unprepared. Smellie had difficulty meeting deadlines, subscribers complained about the length of some articles (often exceeding 100 pages), and the medical establishment was less than pleased with the Britannica’s unacknowledged circulation of their intellectual property.
In 1771, after the publication of 100 weekly parts and 160 copperplates, the Britannica’s first edition was complete in three volumes but a significant quantity of unbound sheets remained unsold. These would eventually be passed on to London booksellers, where they were misleadingly retailed as ‘London’ editions with the imprints of Edward and Charles Dilly (1773) and John Donaldson (1773, 1775). Smellie supplied a new preface.
The Britannica set the standard for modern encyclopedias and is an enduring product of the Scottish Enlightenment: a compendium of current and practical knowledge made relatively affordable by the efforts of Macfarquhar and Bell and by Smellie’s views on the democratisation of knowledge.
All six volumes of the first and second editions have been digitised and can be viewed on the Encyclopaedia Britannica section of the Library’s digital gallery.
We are grateful for the charitable donations which enabled us to conserve, digitise and make the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica available online.