History of the Encyclopædia Britannica

History of the Encyclopædia Britannica

The Encyclopædia Britannica has been published continuously since 1768, appearing in 15 official editions. Several editions have been amended with multi-volume "supplements" (3rd–6th) or undergone drastic re-organizations (15th). In recent years, digital versions of the Britannica have been developed, both online and on optical media. Since the early 1930s, the Britannica has developed several "spin-off" products to leverage its reputation as a reliable reference work and educational tool.


Historical context

Encyclopedias of various types had been published since antiquity, beginning with the collected works of Aristotle and the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, the latter having 2493 articles in 37 books. Encyclopedias were published in Europe and China throughout the Middle Ages, such as the delightful Satyricon of Martianus Minneus Felix Capella (early 5th century), the Speculum majus (The Great Mirror) of Vincent of Beauvais (1250), and Encyclopedia septem tomis distincta (A Seven-Part Encyclopedia) by Johann Heinrich Alsted (1630). Most early encyclopedias did not include biographies of living people and were written in Latin, although some encyclopedias were translated into English, such as De proprietatibus rerum (On the properties of things) (1240) by Bartholomeus Anglicus. However, English-composed encyclopedias appeared in the 18th century, beginning with Lexicon technicum, or A Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences by John Harris (two volumes, published 1704 and 1710, respectively), which contained articles by such contributors as Isaac Newton. Ephraim Chambers wrote a very popular two-volume Cyclopedia in 1728, which went through multiple editions and awakened publishers to the enormous profit potential of encyclopedias. Although not all encyclopedias succeeded commercially, their elements sometimes inspired future encyclopedias; for example, the failed two-volume A Universal History of Arts and Sciences of Dennis de Coetlogon (published 1745) grouped its topics into long self-contained treatises, an organization that likely inspired the "new plan" of the Britannica. The first encyclopedia to include biographies of living people was the 64-volume Grosses Universal-Lexicon (published 1732–1759) of Johann Heinrich Zedler, who argued that death alone should not render people notable.

Earliest editions (1st–6th, 1768–1824)

1st edition

Title page from the first edition
A page from the first edition. The flow of short entries is interrupted here by one of the major treatises.

The Britannica was the idea of Colin Macfarquhar, a bookseller and printer, and Andrew Bell, an engraver, both of Edinburgh. They conceived of the Britannica as a conservative reaction to the French Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot (published 1751–1766), which was widely viewed as heretical. Ironically, the Encyclopédie had begun as a French translation of the popular English encyclopedia, Cyclopaedia published by Ephraim Chambers in 1728. Although later editions of Chambers' Cyclopaedia were still popular, and despite the commercial failure of other English encyclopedias, Macfarquhar and Bell were inspired by the intellectual ferment of the Scottish Enlightenment and thought the time ripe for a new encyclopedia "compiled upon a new plan".

Needing an editor, the two chose a 28-year-old scholar named William Smellie who was offered 200 pounds sterling to produce the encyclopedia in 100 parts (called "numbers" and equivalent to thick pamphlets), which were later bound into three volumes. The first number appeared on December 6, 1768 in Edinburgh, priced sixpence or 8 pence on finer paper. The Britannica was published under the pseudonym "A Society of Gentlemen in Scotland", possibly referring to the many gentlemen who had bought subscriptions.[1] By releasing the numbers in weekly installments, the Britannica was completed in 1771, having 2,391 pages. The numbers were bound in three equally sized volumes covering Aa–Bzo, Caaba–Lythrum, and Macao–Zyglophyllum; an estimated 3,000 sets were eventually sold, priced at 12 pounds sterling apiece.[2] The 1st edition also featured 160 beautiful copperplate illustrations engraved by Bell. Some illustrations were shocking to some readers, such as the three pages depicting female pelvises and fetuses in the midwifery article; King George III commanded that these pages be ripped from every copy.[1]

The key idea that set the Britannica apart was to group related topics together into longer essays, that were then organized alphabetically. Previous English encyclopedias had generally listed related terms separately in their alphabetical order, rather like a modern technical dictionary, an approach that the Britannica's' management derided as "dismembering the sciences".[3] Although anticipated by Dennis de Coetlogon, the idea for this "new plan" is generally ascribed to Colin Macfarquhar, although Smellie claimed it as his own invention.

Smellie wrote most of the first edition, borrowing liberally from the authors of his era, including Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. He later said:[1]

I wrote most of it, my lad, and snipped out from books enough material for the printer. With pastepot and scissors I composed it!
William Smellieat a meeting of the Crochallan Fencibles

The vivid prose and easy navigation of the first edition led to strong demand for a second. Although this edition has been faulted for its imperfect scholarship, Smellie argued that the Britannica should be given the benefit of the doubt:

With regard to errors in general, whether falling under the denomination of mental, typographical or accidental, we are conscious of being able to point out a greater number than any critic whatever. Men who are acquainted with the innumerable difficulties of attending the execution of a work of such an extensive nature will make proper allowances. To these we appeal, and shall rest satisfied with the judgment they pronounce.
William Smelliein the Preface to the 1st edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica

Smellie strove to make Britannica as usable as possible, saying that "utility ought to be the principal intention of every publication. Wherever this intention does not plainly appear, neither the books nor their authors have the smallest claim to the approbation of mankind". On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the 1st edition, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. published a facsimile of the 1st edition, even including "age spots" on the paper. This has been periodically reprinted and is still part of Britannica's product line.[4]

2nd edition

After the success of the first edition, a more ambitious second edition was begun in 1776, with the addition of history and biography articles.[5] Smellie declined to be editor, principally because he objected to the addition of biography. Macfarquhar took over the role himself, aided by pharmacist James Tytler, M.A.,[6] who was known as an able writer and willing to work for a very low wage.[7] Macfarquhar and Bell rescued Tytler from Holyrood Palace, a debtors' prison, and employed him for seven years at 17 shillings per week. Tytler wrote many science and history articles and almost all of the minor articles; by Robert Burns' estimate, Tytler wrote over three-quarters of the second edition.[1] Compared to the 1st edition, the second had five times as many long articles (150), including "Scotland" (84 pages), "Optics" (132 pages), and "Medicine" (309 pages), which had their own indices. The second edition was published in 181 numbers from 21 June 1777 to 18 September 1784; these numbers were bound into ten volumes dated 1778–1783, having 8,595 pages and 340 plates again engraved by Andrew Bell.[2] A pagination error caused page 8000 to follow page 7099. All the maps of this edition are found in a single 195-page article, "Geography".

The second edition improved greatly upon the 1st, but is still notable for the large amount of archaic information it contains. For example, "Chemistry" goes into great detail on an obsolete system of what would now be called alchemy, in which earth, air, water and fire are named elements containing various amounts of phlogiston. Tytler also describes the architecture of Noah's Ark in detail (illustrated with a copperplate engraving) and, following Bishop Ussher, includes a remarkably precise chronology for the Earth, beginning with its creation on 23 October 4004 B.C. and noting that the Great Flood of 2348 B.C. lasted for exactly 777 days. The 2nd edition also reports a cure for tuberculosis:

He chose a spot of ground on which no plants had been sown, and there he made a hole large and deep enough to admit the patient up to the chin. The interstices of the pit were then carefully filled up with the fresh mould, so that the earth might everywhere come in contact with the patient's body. In this situation the patient suffered to remain till he began to shiver or felt himself uneasy...The patient was then taken out, and, after being wrapped in a linen cloth, was placed upon a mattress, and two hours afterwards his whole body was rubbed with the ointment composed of the leaves of the solanum nigrum and hog's lard.
James Tytlerin the 2nd edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica

and a somewhat melancholy article on "Love" that persisted in the Britannica for nearly a century (until its 9th edition):

As the force of love prevails, sighs grow deeper; a tremor affects the heart and pulse; the countenance is alternately pale and red; the voice is suppressed in the sauces; the eyes grow dim; cold sweats break out; sleep absents itself, at least until the morning; the secretions become disturbed; and a loss of appetite, a hectic fever, melancholy, or perhaps madness, if not death, constitutes the sad catastrophe.
James Tytlerin the 2nd–8th editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica

Like the first edition, the second was sold in sections by subscription at the printing shop of Colin MacFarquhar. When finished in 1784, complete sets were sold at Charles Elliot's book shop in Edinburgh for 10 pounds, unbound. Over 1,500 copies of the second edition were sold this way by Elliot in less than one year,[8] making the second edition enough of a financial success that a more ambitious third edition was begun a few years later.

The long period of time during which this edition was written makes the later volumes more updated than the earlier ones. Volume 10, published in 1783 after the Revolutionary War was over, gives in the entry for Virginia: "Virginia, late one of the British colonies, now one of the United States of North America..."[9] but the entry in Volume 2 for Boston, published in 1778, states, "Boston, the capital of New England in North America, ....The following is a description of this capital before the commencement of the present American war."[10]

The causes of the Revolution are outlined concisely by Tytler in the article "Colonies" thus:

Because several of the colonies had claimed the soul and exclusive right of imposing taxes upon themselves, the statute 6 Geo. III. c. 12 expressly declares, that all his Majesty's colonies in America, have been, are, and of right ought to be, subordinate to and dependent upon the imperial crown and parliament of Great Britain; who have full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects to the crown of Great Britain in all cases whatsoever. And the attempting to enforce this by other acts of Parliament, penalties, and at last by military power, gave rise, as is well known, to the present revolt of our colonies.

At the end of volume 10 is a 200-page addendum (page 8996 to 9195) entitled "Appendix containing articles omitted and others further explained or improved, together with corrections of errors and of wrong references."

3rd edition

The third edition was published from 1788 to 1797 in 300 weekly numbers (1 shilling apiece); these numbers were collected and bound in 30 parts (10 shilling, sixpence each) and finally in 18 volumes with 14,579 pages and 542 plates. Macfarquhar again edited this edition up to "Mysteries" but died in 1793 (aged 48) of "mental exhaustion"; his work was taken over by George Gleig, later Bishop Gleig of Brechin (consecrated 30 October 1808). Andrew Bell, Macfarquhar's partner, bought the rights to the Britannica from his heirs.

Nearly doubling the scope of the 2nd edition, Macfarquhar's encyclopedic vision was finally realized. Recruited by Gleig, several illustrious authorities contributed to this edition, such as Dr. Thomas Thomson, who introduced the first usage of chemical symbols in the 1801 supplement (see below), and John Robison, Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, who wrote several well-regarded articles on natural philosophy. The third edition established the foundation of the Britannica as an important and definitive reference work for much of the next century. This edition was also enormously profitable, yielding 42,000 pounds sterling profit on the sale of roughly 10,000 copies. The 3rd edition began the tradition (continued to this day) of dedicating the Britannica to the reigning British monarch, then King George III; calling him "the Father of Your People, and enlightened Patron of Arts, Sciences and Literature", Gleig wished

...that, by the Wisdom of Your Councils, and the Vigour of Your Fleets and Armies, Your MAJESTY may be enabled soon to restore Peace to Europe; that You may again have leisure to extend Your Royal Care to the Improvement of Arts, and the Advancement of Knowledge; that You May Reign long over a Free, Happy and a Loyal People...
George Gleigin the Dedication of the 3rd edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica

The 3rd edition is also famous for its bold article on "Motion", which erroneously rejects Isaac Newton's theory of gravitation. Instead, Dr. Gleig, or more likely, James Tytler, wrote that gravity is caused by the classical element of fire. He seems to have been swayed by William Jones' Essay on the First Principles of Natural Philosophy (1762), which in turn was based on John Hutchinson's MA thesis, Moses' Principia, which was written in 1724 but rejected by Oxford University. Nevertheless, Gleig was sanguine about the errors of the 3rd edition, echoing William Smellie's sentiment in the 1st edition quoted above:

For perfection seems to be incompatible with the nature of works constructed on such a plan, and embracing such a variety of subjects.
George Gleigin the 3rd edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica

The first "American" encyclopedia, Dobson's Encyclopædia, was based almost entirely on the 3rd edition of the Britannica and published at nearly the same time (1788–1798), together with an analogous supplement (1803), by the Scottish-born printer, Thomas Dobson. The first United States copyright law was passed on 30 May 1790 — although anticipated by Section 8 of Article I of the United States Constitution (ratified 4 March 1789) — but did not protect foreign publications such as the Britannica. Piracy of the Britannica in America remained a problem through the 9th edition (1889). Pirated copies were also sold in Dublin by James Moore under the title, Moore's Dublin Edition, Encyclopædia Britannica; this was an exact reproduction of the Britannica's 3rd edition.[1] By contrast, Dobson's work had various corrections and amendments for American readers.

In 1797, Fath Ali Shah was given a complete set of the Britannica's 3rd edition, which he read completely; after this feat, he extended his royal title to include "Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopædia Britannica."

Supplement to the 3rd edition

A two-volume supplement to the 3rd edition was published in 1801, having 1,624 pages and 50 copperplates by D. Lizars. This supplement was published by a wine-merchant, Thomas Bonar, the son-in-law of the Britannica's owner Andrew Bell; unfortunately, the two men quarreled and they never spoke for the last ten years of Bell's life (1799–1809).

The Britannica explicitly positioned itself as a conservative publication in reaction to the radical French Encyclopédie of Diderot published between 1751-66.[11] In the royal dedication penned on 10 December 1800, Dr. Gleig elaborated on the editorial purpose of the Britannica

The French Encyclopédie had been accused, and justly accused, of having disseminated far and wide the seeds of anarchy and atheism. If the Encyclopædia Britannica shall in any degree counteract the tendency of that pestiferous work, even these two volumes will not be wholly unworthy of your Majesty's attention.[3]
George Gleigin the Dedication of the Supplement to the 3rd edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica

4th edition

The 4th edition was begun in 1800 and completed in 1810, comprising 20 volumes with 16,033 pages and 531 plates engraved by Andrew Bell. The editor was Dr. James Millar, a physician, who was good at scientific topics but criticized for being "slow & dilatory & not well qualified". The mathematical articles of Prof. Wallace were widely praised in the 4th edition but, overall, the 4th edition was a minor revision of the 3rd, updated in its historical and biographical articles.

The copyright of the material in the supplement to the 3rd edition was owned by Thomas Bonar, who asked 20,000 pounds sterling for it. The supplemental material was licensed for the fourth edition for 100 pounds, but this copyright issue remained a problem through the 5th edition.

Bonar was friendly to the article authors, however, and conceived the plan of paying them as well as the article reviewers, and of allowing them to retain copyright for separate publication of their work.

5th edition

After Andrew Bell died in 1809, his heirs botched the fifth edition; the dilatory and unqualified Dr. Millar was again the editor. Completed in 1817, the fifth edition sold for 36 pounds sterling (2011: £2,100) and consisted of 20 volumes with 16,017 pages and 582 plates. The fifth edition was a relatively minor revision of the fourth, which in turn was a relatively minor revision of the 3rd edition and its supplement.[7] Afterwards, Bell's trustees sold the rights to the Britannica for 14,000 pounds to Archibald Constable, an apprentice bookseller, who had been involved in its publication from 1788. To secure the copyrights for the 3rd edition supplement, Constable gave Bonar a one-third stake in the Britannica; after Bonar's death in 1814, Constable bought his rights to the Britannica for 4,500 pounds sterling.[1]

Supplement to the 5th edition

After securing sole-ownership rights in December 1816, Constable began work on a supplement to the 5th edition, even before the 5th edition had been released (1817). The supplement was completed in April 1824, consisting of 6 volumes with 4933 pages, 125 plates, 9 maps, 3 "dissertations" and 160 biographies, mainly of people who had died within the preceding 30 years. This edition was the first to have an Index listing the 669 articles.

This supplement had remarkably illustrious contributors. Constable was friends with Sir Walter Scott, who contributed the "Chivalry" article. To edit the supplement, Constable hired Macvey Napier, who recruited other eminent contributors such as Sir Humphry Davy, Jean-Baptiste Biot, John Stuart Mill, William Hazlitt, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus. Thomas Young's article on Egypt included the translation of the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone.[2][12]

6th edition

Constable also produced the 6th edition, which was completed in May 1823. It was published in 40 half-volume parts, priced 16 shillings in boards (32 pounds for the set). The editor was Charles Maclaren. Unfortunately, Constable went bankrupt on 19 January 1826 and the rights to the Britannica were sold on auction; they were eventually bought on 16 July 1828 for 6150 pounds sterling by a partnership of four men: Adam Black (a publisher), Alexander Wight (a banker), Abram Thomson (a bookbinder) and Thomas Allen, the proprietor of the Caledonian Mercury. Not long after, Black bought out his partners and ownership of the Britannica passed to the Edinburgh publishing firm of A & C Black.[5]

A. and C. Black editions (7th–9th, 1827–1901)

7th edition

Early 19th-century editions of Encyclopædia Britannica included seminal works such as Thomas Young's article on Egypt, which included the translation of the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone.

The 7th edition was begun in 1827 and published from March 1830-January 1842. It was edited by Macvey Napier, who was assisted by James Browne, LLD. It consisted of 21 volumes with 17,101 pages and 506 plates, with an Index of 187 pages. This was the first edition to include a general index for all articles, a practice that was maintained until 1974.

Many illustrious contributors were recruited to this edition, including Sir David Brewster, Thomas de Quincey, Antonio Panizzi and Robert Stephenson. James Wilson did all of zoology, Dr. Hampden did all of Greek philosophy, and William Hosking contributed an excellent article on architecture. Mathematical diagrams were made from woodcuts.

The 7th edition went on sale for £24 per set. However, Adam Black had invested over £108,766 in its production: £5,354 for advertising, £8,755 for editing, £13,887 for 167 contributors, £13,159 for plates, £29,279 for paper, and £19,813 for the printing.[1] In the end, roughly 5,000 sets were sold but Black considered himself well-rewarded in intellectual prestige.

8th edition

The 8th edition was published from 1853–1860 in 21 volumes, with 17,957 pages and 402 plates and a 239-page Index (published separately in 1861). Since Macvey Napier died in 1847, Adam Black selected for its editor Dr. Thomas Stewart Traill, a professor of medical jurisprudence at Edinburgh University. When Dr. Traill fell ill, he was assisted by a young Scottish philosopher, John Downes. Black was able to hold costs to roughly £75,655. This edition began the tradition of a contributors' banquet to celebrate the edition's completion (5 June 1861).[1]

Many long articles were carried over from the 7th edition, but new articles by illustrious contributors were added. In all, there were 344 contributors, including Lord Macaulay, Charles Kingsley, Robert Chambers, the Rev. Charles Merivale, Dr. Joseph Dalton Hooker, Baron Robert Bunsen, Sir John Herschel, Professors Richard Owen, John Stuart Blackie and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin). This edition also featured the first American contributor to the Britannica, Edward Everett, who wrote a 40,000-word hagiographic biography of George Washington[1]

In being a living proof that pure patriotism is not a delusion, or virtue an empty name, no one of the sons of man has equalled George Washington.
Edward Everettin the 8th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica

9th edition, The Scholar's Edition

The landmark ninth edition, often called 'the Scholar's Edition',[2] was published from January 1875 to 1889 in 24 volumes with one index volume. Up to 1880, the editor was Thomas Spencer Baynes — the first English-born editor after a series of Scots — and W. Robertson Smith afterwards. An intellectual prodigy who mastered advanced scientific and mathematical topics, Smith was a professor of theology at the Free Church College in Edinburgh, and was the first contributor to the Britannica who addressed the historical interpretation of the Bible, a topic then already familiar on the Continent of Europe. Dr. Smith contributed several articles to the 9th edition, but lost his teaching position on 24 May 1881, due to the controversy his (ir)religious articles aroused; he was immediately hired to be joint editor-in-chief with Baynes.[1]

The 9th and 11th editions are often lauded as high points for scholarship; the 9th included yet another series of illustrious contributors such as Thomas Henry Huxley, Lord Rayleigh, Algernon Charles Swinburne and William Michael Rossetti. Robert Louis Stevenson, then 25, contributed an article about Robert Burns that, being unenthusiastic, was never printed.[7] There were roughly 1100 contributors altogether, a handful of which were women; this edition was also the first to include a significant article about women ("Women, Law Relating to").

The 9th edition was a critical success, and roughly 8,500 sets were sold in Britain. A & C Black authorized two American firms, Charles Scribner's Sons and Little, Brown and Company, to distribute the Britannica in the United States, and roughly 45,000 sets were sold.[7] However, several hundred thousand pirated copies were also sold in the U.S., which still did not have copyright laws protecting foreign publications.[13] Famous pirates of that era include the Philadelphian Joseph M. Stoddart, who employed a spy in the Britannica's own printshop, Neill and Company, in Edinburgh. The spy would steal the proofreader's copies and send them by fastest mail to the United States, allowing Stoddart to publish his version simultaneously with the Britannica and at nearly half the price ($5 versus $9 per volume). His right to do so was upheld in an infamous decision by Justice Arthur Butler who argued

To reproduce a foreign publication is not wrong. There may be differences of opinion about the morality of republishing a work here that is copyrighted abroad; but the public policy of this country, as respects the subject, is in favor of such replication...It is supposed to have an influence upon the advance of learning and intelligence.
—Justice Arthur Butler, in his 1879 decision upholding Joseph Stoddart's right to republish the 9th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica

Another successful pirate was Henry G. Allen, who developed a photographic reproduction method for the Britannica and charged only half as much as Stoddart ($2.50 per volume). Other alleged pirates of the 9th edition included John Wanamaker and the Reverend Isaac Kaufmann Funk of the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia. Richard S. Pearle & Co. of Chicago printed some sets in 1891, with 24 volumes plus an index Vol. 25, and in 1893 added 3 "American" volumes 25-27 with the index as Vol. 28. Some copies of this version say they were printed by Werner, also of Chicago, and in 1907 Werner printed the commonly found "New Werner Edition." In 1890, James Clarke published the Americanized Encyclopædia Britannica, Revised and Amended. However, in 1896, Scribner's obtained court orders to shut down the pirate operations, whose printing plates were melted down as part of the enforcement.[13]

In 1903, Saalfield Publishing published the Americanized Encyclopædia Britannica in 8 volumes with a 4 volume supplement (when the British edition had 24 volumes). The Encyclopædia Britannica Company had acquired all the rights to the encyclopedia in America. In addition, D. Appleton & Company claimed that the 4 volume supplement used material from Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography.

To avoid further litigation, the suit against Saalfield Publishing was settled in court "by a stipulation in which the defendants agree not to print or sell any further copies of the offending work, to destroy all printed sheets, to destroy or melt the portions of the plates from which the infringing matter in the Supplement as it appears in the Americanized Encyclopædia Britannica has been printed, and to pay D. Appleton & Co. the sum of $2000 damages."[14]

Horace Everett Hooper was an American business man, and a close associate of James Clarke, one of the leading American pirates. Hooper recognized the potential profit in the Britannica and, again in 1896, learned that both the Britannica and The Times of London were in financial straits. Hooper formed a partnership with Clarke, his brother George Clarke, and Walter Montgomery Jackson to sell the Britannica under the sponsorship of The Times, meaning that The Times would advertise the sale and lend its respectable name. Hooper and his energetic advertising manager, Henry Haxton, introduced many innovative sales methods: full-page advertisements in The Times, testimonials from celebrities, buying on installment plans, and a long series of so called 'final offers'. Although the crass marketing was criticized as inappropriate to the Britannica's history and scholarship, the unprecedented profits delighted the manager of The Times, Charles Frederic Moberly Bell,[7] who assessed Hooper as "a ranker who loved to be accepted as a gentleman. Treat him as a gentleman and one had no trouble with him; treat him as an essentially dishonest ranker and one got all the trouble there was to get."[15] The American partnership sold over 20,000 copies of the Britannica in the United States (four runs of 5000), after which Hooper and Jackson bought out the two Clarke brothers in early 1900.[1] A & C Black had moved to London in 1895 and, on 9 May 1901, sold all the rights to the Britannica to Hooper and Jackson, then living in London.

The sale of the Britannica to Americans has left a lingering resentment among some British citizens, especially when it is perceived that parochial American concerns are emphasized.[13] For example, one modern British critic has written[16]

The full horror of what an American editorial monopoly entails is seldom appreciated. The American editors who write short in-house ("Micropædia") articles are ignorant and parochial...The Encyclopædia Britannica is a publication so contemptuous of Britain, the land of its birth, that it cannot be bothered to ascertain correct usage when speaking of the Thames, a publication so insular as to give an entry to Alan Whicker but none to Lords Carrington or Whitelaw. It amounts to more than impertinence.
—Charles Mosley, in the Manchester Guardian Weekly (10 July 1988)

First American editions (10th–14th, 1901–1973)

10th edition (supplement to the 9th)

Map of Africa from the Encyclopædia Britannica, 1890

Again under the sponsorship of The Times of London, the new owners quickly produced an 11-volume supplement to the 9th edition; the editors were Hugh Chisholm, Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace, Arthur T. Hadley and Franklin Henry Hooper, the brother of the owner Horace Hooper. Taken together, the 35 volumes were dubbed the "10th edition". The re-issue of the 9th edition under the moniker "10th edition" caused some outrage, since many articles of the 9th edition were over 25 years old, and beginning to show their age. This led to the popular joke: "The Times is behind the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Encyclopædia Britannica is behind the times."[17]

The 1903 advertising campaign for the 10th edition was an onslaught of direct marketing: hand-written letters, telegrams, limited-time offers, etc. The following quote, written in 1926, captures the mood[18]

Who that is old enough does not remember the "campaign" of 1903, the insidious payment by instalments, the sets dumped at your door, bookcase and all, on receipt of a guinea, the scholarships, the competition questions, the reply-paid telegrams pursuing you to the innermost sanctuary of your home ("From my bath I curse you", one man wired back!), the "Going, going, gone" tactics — "Only five days left and one of them the shortest!" so irrelevant, but so arresting!
—Janet E. Courtney, long-time employee of the Britannica, from her book, Recollected in Tranquillity

An excellent collection of prospectuses received by a single person (C. L. Parker) in that year has been preserved by the Bodleian Library (catalogued under #39899.c.1). The advertising was clearly targeted at middle and lower-middle class people seeking to improve themselves.[17] The advertising campaign was remarkably successful; over 70,000 sets were sold, bringing in over £600,000 pounds profit.[1] When one British expert expressed surprise to Hooper that so many people would want an outdated encyclopedia, he replied, "They didn't; I made them want it."[1]

11th edition

Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition

The renowned 11th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica was begun in 1903, and published in 1910–1911 in 28 volumes, with a one-volume Index. Edited by Hugh Chisholm in London and by Franklin Hooper in New York, the 11th edition was the first to be published substantially at one time, instead of volume by volume. Its illustrious contributors are legion, including Baden-Powell writing on kite-flying; Arthur Eddington on astronomy; Edmund Gosse on literature and Donald Tovey on music. Sometimes called the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, this edition is still highly regarded for its lucid explanations of scholarly subjects. Being in the public domain, the complete text is freely available online.[19] The 11th edition retained the high scholarship and eminent contributors that marked the 9th edition, but tempered that scholarship with shorter, simpler articles that were more intelligible to lay-readers. Thus, the 9th and 11th editions had 17,000 and 40,000 articles, respectively, although they were roughly equivalent in size. This shift accommodated the American business strategy of popularizing the Britannica for a mass market, while still retaining its quality as a reference work. The high literary and scholarly level of the 11th edition is largely due to the zeal of its owner, Horace Everett Hooper, who held scholarship in high regard and spared no expense to make the 11th edition as excellent as possible.[1]

After a heated legal dispute and all-too-public corporate wrangling over ownership of the Britannica (1908–1909), Hooper bought out Walter Jackson, becoming the sole owner of the Britannica. The public furor caused The Times to cancel its sponsorship contract with Hooper, feeling that the interests of the newspaper were not being served.[7] After failing to win over Oxford University, Hooper managed to secure Cambridge University as a new sponsor; thus, the 11th edition was published initially by Cambridge University Press, and scholars from Cambridge University were allowed to review the text and veto any overly aggressive advertising.[7] Perhaps because of this, the Britannica encountered financial difficulties, whereupon it was licensed to Sears Roebuck and Co. of Chicago, who issued a physically smaller but complete version. The owner of Sears, philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, was friends with Horace Hooper and enthusiastic about the Britannica's promise; he single-handedly saved the Britannica from bankruptcy several times over the next fifteen years. Although Sears' smaller set was successful in 1915–1916, sales dropped significantly when the United States entered World War I.

The 11th edition employed 35 named female contributors, out of 1500 total (2.3%). Although this was not much of an increase over the 10th edition (which named 37 female contributors out of 1800 total), it was heralded publicly as a major advance in recognizing the contributions of women in learned circles.[17] However, the 11th edition did employ hundreds of women to write unsigned articles; some women, such as Irish medical expert Harriet Hennessy, even rose to be (uncredited) department editors.[17]

1913 advertisement for the 11th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, with the slogan "When in doubt—"look it up" in the Encyclopædia Britannica"

12th and 13th editions (competing supplements to the 11th)

The poor sales of the war years brought the Britannica to the brink of bankruptcy. Luckily, the CEO of Sears Roebuck,The Britannica's headquarters were moved to Chicago, where they have remained ever since. In 1922, a 3-volume supplement to the 11th edition was released that summarized the developments just before, during and after World War I; these three volumes, taken together with the 11th edition, became known as the 12th edition. Horace Hooper died in 1922, a few weeks after the publication of the 12th edition.[7] This edition was a commercial failure, losing Sears roughly $1.75 million dollars, after which Sears gave it back to Hooper's widow, Harriett Meeker Cox, and her brother, William J. Cox, who ran the company from 1923-1928.

The passage of a few years led to a better perspective on that era. In 1926, the Britannica released three new volumes covering the history of 1910-1926, which were intended to supplant those of the 12th edition. Again taken together with the 11th edition, the new volumes became known as the 13th edition, which maintained the Britannica's tradition of illustrious contributors: Harry Houdini, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Henry Ford, Leon Trotsky, Ferdinand Foch, Gustav Stresemann, Thomas G. Masaryk and Elihu Root.

In 1928, Rosenwald bought back the rights to the Britannica, leaving Cox as publisher. Cox argued forcefully for a new 14th edition, pointing out that the 11th edition (the bulk of the 12 and 13th editions) was badly out of date. Cox also tried to involve the University of Chicago in producing the Britannica, even including a $1 million advance from Rosenwald as a temptation; however, the trustees of the University turned down his proposal, a choice they almost repeated a generation later under William Benton.

14th edition

By 1926, the 11th edition was beginning to show its age, and work on a new edition was begun. The editors were J. L. Garvin in London and Franklin Henry Hooper in New York. The 14th edition took three years to complete, at the then exorbitant cost of $2.5 million dollars, all of it invested by Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck and Company. It was very different from the 11th edition, having fewer volumes and simpler articles, continuing the business strategy of popularizing the Britannica for the American mass market at the expense of its scholarship.[5][13] The 14th edition also drew criticism for deleting information unflattering to the Roman Catholic Church.[20] Nevertheless, the 14th also included many illustrious contributors, including eighteen Nobel laureates in science, such as Robert Millikan, Albert Abraham Michelson and Arthur Compton. More coverage was given to popular entertainment,[21] with Gene Tunney writing on boxing, Lillian Gish on acting and Irene Castle on ballroom dancing. George Bernard Shaw contributed a well-regarded article on socialism.[1] In all, there were roughly 3500 named contributors, of which roughly half were American.[1] The 14th edition was again criticized for sexism; for example, less than 6% of its 13,000 biographies were of women.[1]

The 14th edition was published in September 1929, and had 23 volumes with a one-volume Index that also contained a complete atlas. Unfortunately, the Great Depression struck scarcely a month after the release of the 14th edition, and sales plummeted. Despite the unfailing support of the Sears Roebuck company, the Britannica almost went bankrupt over the next few years. Rosenwald died in 1932, and General Robert E. Wood took over; Cox was removed as publisher and the Secretary-Treasurer of Sears, Elkan Harrison Powell was installed as the new President of the Britannica.

Policy of continuous revision

E. H. Powell identified and fixed a key vulnerability of Britannica, namely, that its sales (and, hence, the company's income) fluctuated strongly over the life-cycle of an edition. After the release of a new edition, sales would generally begin strong, and decline gradually for 10–20 years as the edition began to show its age; finally, sales would drop off precipitously with the announcement that work had begun on a new edition, since few people would buy an obsolete encyclopedia that would soon be updated. These strong fluctuations in sales led to economic hardship for the Britannica.

To address this problem, Powell suggested in 1933 the policy of continuous revision, with the goal of keeping the Britannica "always timely and always salable". The basic idea was to maintain a continuous editorial staff that would constantly revise the articles on a fixed schedule. Earlier encyclopedias did not maintain a continuous editorial staff, but rather assembled one just prior to beginning a new edition. Rather than releasing supplemental editions or volumes, new printings would be made every year with only enough copies made to cover the sales for that year. An analysis of the Britannica's articles suggested that roughly 75% required only occasional revising, whereas 25% required revision every 1–3 years. The articles were therefore divided into 30 classifications and a schedule for their revision worked out, such that every article would be checked at least twice a decade.

Powell also conceived the Britannica's "Book of the Year", in which a single volume would be released every year covering the developments of the previous year, particularly in rapidly changing fields such as science, technology, culture and politics. The "Book of the Year" continues to be published even today. Powell also introduced the Library Research Service (1936), in which owners of the Britannica could write to have their personal questions researched and answered by the editorial staff.

Under Powell's leadership, the Britannica began to capitalize on its reputation by aggressively developing "spin-offs", such as the 12-volume Britannica Junior for children (published 1934, and revised to 15 volumes in 1947), the historical timeline The March of Man (published 1935, and edited by Albert Bushwell Hart, Isaac J. Cox and Lawrence H. Dawson), the Encyclopædia Britannica World Atlas (published 1942, and prepared by G. Donald Hudson) and Ten Eventful Years, a summary of the national and international events surrounding World War II (1937–1946).

Transfer of ownership to William Benton

Sears Roebuck published the Britannica until 1943. In 1941, Sears offered the rights to the Britannica as a gift to the University of Chicago. The story of this offer was recounted at the bicentennial banquet of the Encyclopædia Britannica[22]

It was after lunch on the afternoon of December 9, 1941 that General Robert E. Wood, Chairman of Sears, Roebuck and William Benton, then vice-president of the University of Chicago, were discussing the attack on Pearl Harbor which had occurred two days earlier. At the end of this conversation, as coffee was served, Bill changed the subject and said to Wood, "General, don't you think it is rather unsuitable for a mail-order house to own the Encyclopædia Britannica, and isn't it even more unsuitable in wartime?"

"Yes", replied General Wood, "Sears, Roebuck should never have acquired it in the first place."

"Does it make any money?" Bill asked. Wood replied that sales would earn his company some $300,000 before taxes that year. Bill replied, "Well, General, you know that universities do not have any money. They cannot buy businesses. Why don't you make a gift of the Britannica to the University of Chicago?"

General Wood did not reply immediately but walked to his car. As he got into the car, he turned to Bill Benton and said, "All right, Bill, I will give you the Britannica."

The University of Chicago declined the offer, viewing the mission of the university as not entirely consistent with a large commercial publishing house; however it continues even today to be involved in its production, offering editorial advice and allowing its name to be associated with the Britannica. Thus, in 1943, the wealthy and powerful William Benton, a former U.S. senator and advertising executive, obtained exclusive control of the Britannica, which he published until his death in 1973. His widow Helen Hemingway Benton continued to publish the Britannica until her own death in 1974. After their deaths, the Benton Foundation continued to manage the Britannica until it was sold to Jacqui Safra in 1996.

The current 15th edition

First version (1974–1984)

Despite the policy of continuous revision, the 14th edition of the Britannica gradually became outdated, much as its predecessors, the 9th and 11th editions. Beginning in the early 1960s, the failings of the 14th edition began to be collated and published by physicist Harvey Einbinder, culminating in his highly critical 390-page book, The Myth of Britannica (1964). Goaded into action, the Britannica began to work on a new edition, the current 15th.

The 15th edition was produced over ten years at a cost of $32 million dollars and released in 1974 in 30 volumes. The so-called New Encyclopædia Britannica (or Britannica 3) had a unique three-part organization: a single Propædia (Primer for Education) volume, which aimed to provide an outline of all known, indeed knowable, information; a 10-volume Micropædia (Small Education) of 102,214 short articles (strictly less than 750 words); and a 19-volume Macropædia (Large Education) of 4,207 longer, scholarly articles with references, similar to those of the 9th and 11th editions.[23] The Micropædia and Macropædia articles are listed in alphabetical order; the 4,287 contributors to the Macropædia articles are identified scrupulously, but the Micropædia articles are generally anonymous and unreferenced.

This 15th edition had no general index, which had been a feature of the Britannica since its 7th edition; even in the 2nd edition, individual long articles had their own indices. The idea of Mortimer J. Adler was that the Propædia and the Micropædia could serve the role of an index. More generally, Dr. Adler felt that the Britannica should not merely serve as a reference work, but also aspire to be a categorization of omne scibile (everything knowable), to fulfill Francis Bacon's grand conception of epistemology. Thus, the Propædia was intended to be the road-map of all knowledge, within which every fact, technique, and theory could be organized.

The lack of an index and the unusual organization into two sets of alphabetically organized articles provoked much criticism.[13] In a typical contemporary assessment, "It is called the Micropædia, for 'little knowledge,' and little knowledge is what it provides. It has proved to be grotesquely insufficient as an index, radically constricting the utility of the Macropædia."[24] or, more laconically, "This arrangement has nothing to recommend it except commercial novelty".[25] Most readers could not predict whether a given subject would be found in Micropædia or the Macropædia; the criteria by which the articles were sorted were not obvious even to scholars,[23] despite Dr. Adler's claims that the sorting followed naturally from the Propædia's outline of all knowledge.

Second version (1985–present)

In 1985, the Britannica responded to reader requests by restoring the index as a two-volume set. The number of topics indexed by the Britannica has fluctuated from 500,000 (1985, the same as in 1954) to 400,000 (1989,1991) to 700,000 in the current 2007 print version. Presumably, this recent increase reflects the introduction of efficient electronic indexing, since the size of the encyclopedia has remained nearly constant at approximately 40 million words from 1954 to the present and far less than 40% of the encyclopedia has changed from 1985 to 2007.

Under the editorship of Philip W. Goetz, the 1985 version of the 15th edition introduced other major changes. The 4,207 articles of the first version Macropædia were combined into 674 longer articles; for example, the individual articles for each of the 50 U.S. states were merged into what became a 310-page article "United States of America". The Macropædia was also restricted somewhat from 19 volumes to the present 17 volumes. At the same time, the number of Micropædia volumes was increased from 10 to the present 12 volumes, although the number of articles was reduced from 102,214 to roughly 65,000. The strict 750-word limit was softened to allow articles of medium length, such as Internet, which almost fills one page. Finally, the Propædia's Outline of Knowledge was simplified for easier use.

Development of electronic versions

Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite, available on DVD

In the 1980s Microsoft approached Britannica Inc. to collaborate on a CD-ROM encyclopedia, but the offer was declined. Senior managers at Britannica were confident in their control of the market and that their healthy profits would continue. At this time complete sets of the encyclopedia were priced between $1,500 and $2,200, and the product was considered part of a luxury brand with an impeccable reputation handed down from generation to generation. The management did not believe that a CD-ROM could adequately compete or supplement their business. Microsoft responded by using content from Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia to create what is now known as Encarta.[26]

In 1990 the Britannica's sales reached an all-time high of $650 million, but Encarta, released in 1993, soon became a software staple with almost every computer purchase and the Britannica's market share plummeted. Britannica Inc. countered by offering a CD-ROM version of their product,[27] although it could not generate the print version's $500–600 in sales commissions. Britannica Inc. decided to charge $995 for just the CD-ROM, while bundling a free disc with the print version, hoping that including the CD-ROM would persuade buyers to stay with the brand.

In 1994 an online version was launched,[2] with subscriptions for sale for $2,000. By 1996 the price of the CD-ROM had dropped to $200, and sales had dropped to $325 million — about half of their 1990 levels. Only 55,000 hard copy versions were sold in 1994, compared with 117,000 in 1990, and sales later fell to 20,000.[28] Facing financial pressure, Britannica Inc. was bought in 1996 by Swiss financier Jacob Safra for $135 million, a fraction of its book value. Safra introduced severe price-cutting measures to try to compete with Encarta, even offering the entire reference free of charge for a time (around 18 months, from October 1999 to March 2001) on the Internet.

Currently, Britannica co-operates with Taiwan companies (遠流/智慧藏學習科技公司) to provide a Traditional Chinese-English bilingual version encyclopedia on internet according to the 2002 edition. It is the first bilingual product of Britannica.

Former editor-in-chief Robert McHenry believes that Britannica failed to exploit its early advantages in the market for electronic encyclopedias. Britannica had, for example, published the second multimedia encyclopedia titled Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia as early as 1989 (the first one being the Academic American Encyclopedia published by Grolier), but did not launch Britannica CD until 1994, a year after Microsoft launched their Encarta encyclopedia. McHenry believes these failures were due to a reluctance among senior management to fully embrace the new technology, caused largely by the overriding influence of the sales staff and management. The sales personnel earned commissions from door-to-door selling of the print encyclopedias, which McHenry believes led to decisions about the distribution and pricing of the electronic products being driven by the desires of the sales personnel rather than market conditions and customer expectations.[29]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Kogan, Herman (1958). The Great EB: The Story of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Library of Congress catalog number 58-8379. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "History of Encyclopædia Britannica and Britannica Online". Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. http://corporate.britannica.com/company_info.html. Retrieved October 17, 2006. 
  3. ^ a b "Online Encyclopedia". http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/EMS_EUD/ENCYCLOPAEDIA.html. Retrieved September 27, 2006. 
  4. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, 1st edition reprint. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.. 2004. ISBN 0852290667. 
  5. ^ a b c "History of the Encyclopædia Britannica Part 1". Trivia-Library.com. http://www.trivia-library.com/b/history-of-the-encyclopedia-britannica-part-1.htm. Retrieved October 19, 2006. 
  6. ^ The degree of M.A. is found after his name in the 11th edition of Britannica in the article Encyclopedia, vol. 9., p. 378
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Wells, James M. (1968). The Circle of Knowledge: Encyclopaedias Past and Present. Chicago: The Newberry Library. Library of Congress catalog number 68-21708. 
  8. ^ The Great EB, the story of Encyclopedia Britannica, Herman Kogan, p. 21
  9. ^ http://www.hyzercreek.com/britannica.htm
  10. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica, second edition. Edinburgh.
  11. ^ "Encyclopedias and Dictionaries". Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th ed.. 18. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.. 2007. pp. 257–286. 
  12. ^ Wolfe, Morris (1974). "Encyclopædia Britannica: The Final Edition". Globe and Mail. http://www.grubstreetbooks.ca/essays/britannica.html. Retrieved October 21, 2006. 
  13. ^ a b c d e Kister, KF (1994). Kister's Best Encyclopedias: A Comparative Guide to General and Specialized Encyclopedias (2nd ed.). Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press. ISBN 0-89774-744-5. 
  14. ^ The Publishers' Weekly No. 1688, June 4, 1904
  15. ^ Kitchen, F. Harcourt (1925). Moberley Bell and his Times: An Unofficial Narrative. London: Philip Allan and Co. 
  16. ^ Mosley, Charles (10 July 1988). "No title". Manchester Guardian Weekly. 
  17. ^ a b c d Thomas, Gillian (1992). A Position to Command Respect: Women and the Eleventh Britannica. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-2567-8. 
  18. ^ Courtney, Janet E. (1926). Recollected in Tranquillity. Heinemann. p. 225. 
  19. ^ There are many places the encyclopedia can be accessed online, such as encyclopedia.jrank.org, 1911encyclopedia.org and The gutenberg project
  20. ^ McCabe, Joseph. Lies and Fallacies of the Encyclopædia Britannica: How Powerful and Shameless Clerical Forces Castrated a Famous Work.... http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/joseph_mccabe/lies_of_britannica.html. 
  21. ^ "Patriarch Revised". TIME. 23 September 1929. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,732859-1,00.html. 
  22. ^ Banquet at Guildhall in the City of London, Tuesday 15 October 1968: Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the Encyclopædia Britannica and the 25th Anniversary of the Honorable William Benton as its Chairman and Publisher. United Kingdom: Encyclopædia Britannica International, Ltd.. 1968. 
  23. ^ a b Harris, Chauncy D. (1975). "The New Encyclopædia Britannica". Geographical Review (Geographical Review, Vol. 65, No. 1) 65 (1): 141–145. doi:10.2307/213852. JSTOR 213852. 
  24. ^ Wolff, G (November 1976). "Britannica 3, Failures of". The Atlantic: 107–110. 
  25. ^ McCracken, S (February 1976). "The Scandal of 'Britannica 3'". Commentary: 63–68. 
  26. ^ Alevizou, Panagiota. "To wire or not to wire? Encyclopædia Britannica versus Microsoft Encarta" (PDF). Graduate Centre for Culture and Communication, Department of Media Studies. http://www.ifets.info/download_pdf.php?j_id=11&a_id=258. Retrieved November 21, 2006. 
  27. ^ Ridder, Knight (1994-06-26). "CD-ROM Technology Poses Challenge for Encyclopedia Industry". San Jose Mercury News. http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-5519440_ITM. Retrieved November 21, 2006. 
  28. ^ Day, Peter (2006-12-17). "Encyclopædia Britannica changes to survive". BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/40033.stm. Retrieved October 21, 2006. "Sales plummeted from 100,000 a year to just 20,000." 
  29. ^ "The Building of Britannica Online". howtoknow.com. http://www.howtoknow.com/BOL1.html. Retrieved December 30, 2005. 

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