WHEN three ambitious young Edinburgh tradesmen put the finishing touches to the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica 250 years go today they may not have known it, but they were literally bringing the Scottish Enlightenment to the world.
In that first edition – conceived, compiled, printed and published entirely in Edinburgh by printer Colin Macfarquhar, engraver Andrew Bell, and editor William Smellie – there were only six planets; California was ‘a large country of the West Indies, unknown whether it is an island or a peninsula’; and humans were divided into just five categories - European, American, Asiatic, African and... Monstrous.
In the intervening 250 years since the first edition was sent to the presses, the Encyclopaedia has been constantly updated and amended as the world added to its knowledge, to became a prized possession in family homes the world over wherever education is cherished.
Now the National Library of Scotland has published online a rare first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica to mark its 250th anniversary.
When it appeared, subscribers were scandalised by explicit engravings – specifically those on midwifery.
Bell produced three full pages of anatomically accurate depictions of dissected female pelvises and of foetuses in wombs; these illustrations shocked King George III who commanded that the pages be ripped from every copy.
However, the National Library has a complete copy in its collections and, thanks to a successful fundraising campaign for its digitisation, has made the first edition available online for all to view.
Rare Books Curator Robert Betteridge said Britannica is one of the enduring achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment.
He said:“By the 20th century Britannica was a household name throughout the English-speaking world, and what is especially interesting about this publication was that it had a distinctly Scottish viewpoint.
“The first edition emphasised two themes – modern science and Scottish identity, including ground-breaking and controversial articles on anatomy and Scots Law.”
He added: “Britannica became viewed as an authoritative source of facts about the world. Its first editor believed strongly in the democratisation of knowledge – that it should be accessible to all who sought self-improvement, regardless of background. We adhere to this belief at the Library, which is why we are working to digitise and make available as many early editions as possible.”
The venure, though a gamble for the men, went on to earn principal partners Macfarguhar and Bell a fortune.
Head of Development Lucy Clement said: “Britannica holds a special place in people’s memories. Many donors to our appeal have told us how, in childhood, it piqued their curiosity about the world around them and helped with their homework in the days before Google. They are fascinating time capsules of human knowledge and society’s values at particular points in our history and with the public’s help, we hope to make many more editions available for free online.”
The first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica will form part of the National Library’s major exhibition on the Scottish Enlightenment, due to open in the summer of 2019.