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History of Encyclopædia Britannica and Britannica.com

Taking a great legacy into the 21st Century.


The Encyclopædia Britannica was founded in 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland, by Colin Macfarquhar, a printer, and Andrew Bell, an engraver. The two formed a "Society of Gentlemen" to publish the work and hired William Smellie to edit it.

The first edition of the Britannica was published one section at a time over a three-year period. The three-volume set was completed in 1771, and the printing quickly sold out.

Encouraged by the success of the first edition, the publishers issued the second edition in 10 volumes (1777-84). The third edition, completed in 1797 and the first to include articles by outside contributors, comprised 18 volumes; the fourth, completed in 1809, boasted 20.

The Encyclopædia Britannica first came to the United States in the form of a pirated edition printed in Philadelphia in 1790 by Thomas Dobson. Owners of that set included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.

Contributions from the leading scholars of the day began with a set of six volumes published in 1815-24 as a supplement to the fourth, fifth, and sixth editions. Contributors included Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, James Mill, and Thomas Young, whose pioneering efforts to penetrate the mystery of the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone first saw light of day under the Britannica imprint.

The ninth edition, published in 1875-89, is often remembered as the "scholar's edition." It embodied as no other publication of the day the transformation of scholarship wrought by scientific discovery and new critical methods. In its pages Thomas Henry Huxley propounded Darwin's theory of evolution, and W. Robertson Smith, editor of the encyclopedia, applied the "higher criticism" to biblical literature. The poet A.C. Swinburne wrote on John Keats, Prince Pyotr Kropotkin on anarchism, and James G. Frazer contributed articles on totemism and taboo.

Twentieth Century

The eleventh edition (1910-11) was produced in cooperation with Cambridge University, and though by then ownership of the Britannica had passed to two Americans, Horace Hooper and Walter Jackson, the strength and confidence of much of its writing marked the high point of Edwardian optimism and perhaps of the British Empire itself. The addition of three and later six supplemental volumes resulted in the 12th (1921-22) and 13th (1926) editions. Contributors to those editions included Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Leon Trotsky, Harry Houdini, H.L. Mencken, and W.E.B. Du Bois. The article "Mass Production" was signed by Henry Ford but is believed actually to have been written by his personal publicist.

By the time the thoroughly revised 14th edition appeared in 1929, the principal operations of the company had moved to the United States. Other important changes took place also. Whereas previously the editorial staff would be disbanded after the completion of a new edition, the company now maintained a permanent editorial department whose job was to keep pace with the rapid growth of knowledge. The encyclopedia began to undergo continuous revision, and starting in 1936 a new printing was published each year, incorporating the latest changes and updates. In 1938, the first edition of the Britannica Book of the Year appeared. The yearbook is still published today.

In 1943 William Benton, a founder of the advertising agency Benton and Bowles and later a U.S. senator, became chairman of the board and publisher. Under his leadership the company expanded by purchasing Compton's Encyclopedia, the dictionary publisher G. & C. Merriam (later Merriam-Webster, Inc.), and other properties. Britannica also extended its publishing activities abroad during this period. Benton led the company until his death, in 1997. The publishing landmarks of his era were Great Books of the Western World, a 54-volume collection published in 1952 (a second, revised edition, in 60 volumes, was issued in 1990); and the innovative fifteenth edition of the Britannica, in 30 volumes, in 1974. A major revision was published in 1985, bringing the size of the set to 32 volumes.

By the 1990s Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., had produced or was at work on encyclopedias and other educational materials in Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Italy, France, Spain, Latin America, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere.

Britannica was an early leader in electronic publishing and new media. In 1981, under an agreement with Mead Data Central, the first digital version of the Encyclopædia Britannica was created for the Lexis-Nexis service. Britannica also created the first multimedia CD-ROM encyclopedia, Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia, in 1989.

In 1994 the company developed Britannica Online, the first encyclopedia for the Internet, which made the entire text of the Encyclopædia Britannica available worldwide. That year the first version of the Britannica on CD-ROM was also published.

Britannica.com Today

The daring ingenuity of those publishing decisions, combined with Britannica's long tradition of excellence, continue to shape the company's vision for the digital age. Nineteen ninety-seven saw the creation of the Britannica Internet Guide, a directory of the Web's best sites chosen by Britannica editors for their quality and usefulness. In 1999 Britannica.com Inc. was established as a separate corporate entity from Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., charged with becoming the leading source for information and learning in digital media under the Britannica brand. In October of that year the new company released the first version of the Britannica.com web site, in one of the most publicized product launches in Internet history.

Britannica.com Inc. has set its sights on making full use of all new media, including wireless, to make rich information available to people wherever they need it. The company is also actively syndicating some of its more popular features throughout the Internet, making Britannica information more widely accessible.

Britannica Products

Since the Encyclopædia Britannica's founding in 1768, Britannica editors have gathered and organized information on thousands of topics for easy retrieval. More than 240 years later, Encyclopædia Britannica is still the standard by which other reference works are judged. Britannica products and services can be found in a variety of media, from print and digital to mobile content with millions of people accessing online, via our school, tertiary, library and our public sites. We invite you to explore this overview of Britannica products available for your home, school, library, or corporation, or browse additional products for consumers at Britannica Store.

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