Dec 062017

On this date in 1768 the publication of the 1st edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica began, more fully titled, Encyclopædia Britannica, or, A Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, compiled upon a New Plan. In part, it was conceived in reaction to the French Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (published 1751–72), which had been inspired by Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (1st edition 1728). It appeared in 100 weekly instalments (“numbers”) from December 1768 to 1771.  The publication history of the Britannica is usually divided into five periods based on who the publishers were, how it was marketed, and where it was published. In the first period (1st–6th editions, 1768–1826), the Britannica was managed and published in Edinburgh by its founders, Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell, then by Archibald Constable, and then by various others. The Britannica of this period was primarily a Scottish enterprise, and it is one of the most enduring legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment. In this era, the Britannica moved from being a 3-volume set (1st edition) compiled by one editor—William Smellie —to a 20-volume set written by numerous authorities. Several other encyclopaedias competed throughout this period, among them editions of Abraham Rees’s Cyclopædia and Coleridge’s Encyclopædia Metropolitana and David Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopædia, but it was Britannica which endured, and is still being published (although no longer in print form).

At the age of 28, Smellie was hired by Macfarquhar and Bell to edit the first edition of the Britannica. In many respects it was a masterful composition although, by his own admission, Smellie borrowed liberally (i.e. plagiarized) from many authors of his day, such as Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. Despite its many fine qualities, the first edition of the Britannica contained gross inaccuracies and fanciful speculations not supported by sources. For example, it states that excess use of tobacco could cause neurodegeneration, “drying up the brain to a little black lump consisting of mere membranes.” 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”. Smellie entertained strong opinions; for example, he defines farriery as “the art of curing the diseases of horses. The practice of this useful art has been hitherto almost entirely confined to a set of men who are totally ignorant of anatomy, and the general principles of medicine.” Sometimes Smellie could be rather too brief. His article on “Woman” has but four words: “the female of man.” Despite its incompleteness and inaccuracies, Smellie’s vivid prose and the easy navigation of the first edition led to strong demand for a second. Some engravings by Andrew Bell, that were considered prurient and later censored by King George III, may also have contributed to the success of the first edition. Smellie did not participate in the second edition onwards of the Britannica, because he objected to the inclusion of biographical articles in an encyclopedia dedicated to the arts and sciences. Instead, friends of the editors were recruited for new material.

During the second period (7th–9th editions, 1827–1901), the Britannica was taken over by the Edinburgh publishing firm A & C Black. Although some contributors were again recruited through friendships of the chief editors, notably Macvey Napier, others were attracted by the Britannica‘s reputation. The contributors often came from other countries and included the world’s most respected authorities in their fields. A general index of all articles was included for the first time in the 7th edition, a practice maintained until 1974.

Production of the 9th edition was overseen by Thomas Spencer Baynes, the first English-born editor-in-chief. Called the “Scholar’s Edition”, the 9th edition is, indeed, the most scholarly of all Britannicas. After 1880, Baynes was assisted by William Robertson Smith. No biographies of living persons were included. James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas Huxley were special advisors on science. However, by the close of the 19th century, the 9th edition was outdated, and the Britannica faced financial difficulties.

In the third period (10th–14th editions, 1901–1973), the Britannica was managed by U.S. businessmen who introduced direct marketing and door-to-door sales. The U.S. owners gradually simplified articles, making them less scholarly for a mass market. The 10th edition was a nine-volume supplement to the 9th, but the 11th edition was a completely new work, and is still praised for excellence; its owner, Horace Hooper, lavished enormous effort on its perfection.

When Hooper fell into financial difficulties, the Britannica was managed by Sears Roebuck for 18 years (1920–1923, 1928–1943). In 1932, the vice-president of Sears, Elkan Harrison Powell, assumed presidency of the Britannica, and in 1936, he began the policy of continuous revision. This was a departure from earlier practice, in which the articles were not changed until a new edition was produced, at roughly 25-year intervals, with some articles completely unchanged from earlier editions. Powell developed new educational products that built upon the Britannica‘s reputation.

In 1943, Sears donated the Encyclopædia Britannica to the University of Chicago. William Benton, then a vice president of the University, provided the working capital for its operation. The stock was divided between Benton and the University, with the University holding an option on the stock. Benton became Chairman of the Board and managed the Britannica until his death in 1973. Benton set up the Benton Foundation, which managed the Britannica until 1996. In 1968, near the end of this era, the Britannica celebrated its bicentennial.

My family owned a set of Britannicas from this third period (revised 14th), when I was growing up, and later I bought my own copy (as a memento of childhood), in a basement sale in my local library in Port Jervis, New York.  My father bought his edition of the Britannica when he was a medical student at King’s College, London, in the early 1950s, from a door-to-door salesman. It was in a red cloth binding, called the student binding, that is, the cheapest on offer. Britannica was a gold mine for the whole family during my childhood, even though pretty much all of the articles on science and technology were completely outdated. My father bought a fold top desk with a glass fronted bookcase as a base to house the encyclopedia, and it traveled the world with us. We shipped it to Australia and back again, and he still had it in Lesmahagow in Lanarkshire when he died. My sisters and I both worked at that desk, with Britannica at our feet, for may years as schoolchildren. I used the articles to assist with homework until my middle years in secondary school, especially for geography and history. When I first started reading articles, when I was about 7 years old, they seemed to weighty and impossibly academic, but by the time I was 16 they had all become dated and less than satisfactory for my needs.  Nonetheless I bought a similar edition, in a blue leather binding this time, purely as a memento of childhood. Once in a while I would dip in to recall those innocent days.

An 18th century Scottish recipe is called for, and since we are in the Advent season leading to Christmas let’s have roastit bubblyjock (roast turkey) from an 18th century cook, Susanna MacIver, who ran a cooking school in Edinburgh, and published Cookery and Pastry in 1774, among its highlights being the first printed recipe for Scottish haggis (reminding me that William Smellie, first editor of Britannica, was a friend of Robert Burns). Several things to note. I suspect she does not mean to stuff the turkey under the breast skin (although this works well), but to stuff the cavity. In MacIver’s day poultry was sold with the head and feet attached, and this is still true in Asia in general. The “gravy-sauce” under the roasting turkey would be a dripping pan, which you then take up and use to cook the sauce. Sauce thickened with bread, rather then flour, can turn to a thick bread sauce if you let it. Bread sauce is traditional for poultry in Britain, but MacIver is suggesting a thinner gravy.

To roast and stuff a Turkey

Slit it up and the back of the neck; take out the crop; make the stuffing of crumbs of bread and currants; a little sugar and a scrape of nutmeg; work it up with a piece of fresh butter and a beat egg; fill up the breast with it, and skewer it with the head looking over the wing; it must be well floured and basted with butter, and roasted with a clear, quick fire; put a gravy-sauce under it; make a sauce of some thin sliced bread, some water, a little white wine, a blade of mace, some sugar, and a piece of fresh butter; let all boil until is it very smooth; and don’t let it be too thick. Send it up in a sauce boat.