The 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' is considered to be one of the enduring achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment.
First issued in 1768, 'Britannica' has its origins in Edinburgh. It was published by Colin Macfarquhar (1744/5-1793), a printer, and engraver Andrew Bell (1725/6-1809).
The first edition was issued in 100 weekly parts, which eventually took three years to produce, and when completed in 1771 it consisted of three volumes.
Bell, who had established his reputation as an engraver for the the 'Scots Magazine', produced all 160 copperplate illustrations.
William Smellie's editorship
William Smellie (1740-1795) was editor of the first edition. He too had worked for the 'Scots Magazine', which he edited for five years from 1760.
Professor Stephen Brown, of Trent University in Ontario, says of Smellie:
'Under his editorship the "Scots Magazine" adapted the practices of an encyclopaedia, something Smellie emphasised in introducing the 1762 volume where he described it as "a work calculated to promote knowledge, and inspire the reader with the love of it".
'He would open his Preface to the first edition [of "Encyclopaedia Britannica"] 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.'
Modern science and Scottish identity were the two themes of the first edition. Articles were sometimes a bit lengthy — often running to more than 100 pages.
By the 2nd edition 'Britannica' was issued in 10 volumes, by the 3rd in 18 volumes, and in 20 volumes after that.
Editions at the Library
At the National Library of Scotland we hold two sets of the first edition of 'Britannica', along with all subsequent 19th-century editions.
- View the first edition online
- Read the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' article in issue 39 of 'Discover' magazine
- Find details of 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' at the Library using Library Search.