1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Prefatory Note
THE Encyclopædia Britannica, of which the Eleventh edition is now issued by the University of Cambridge, has a history extending over 140 years. The First Edition, in three quarto volumes, was issued in weekly numbers (price 6d. each) from 1768 to 1771, by “a Society of Gentlemen in Scotland.” The proprietors were Colin MacFarquhar, an Edinburgh printer, and Andrew Bell, the principal Scottish engraver of that day. It seems that MacFarquhar, a man of wide knowledge and excellent judgment, was the real originator of the work, though his want of capital prevented his undertaking it by himself. The work was edited and in great part written by William Smellie, another Edinburgh printer, who was bold enough to undertake “fifteen capital sciences” for his own share. The numerous plates were engraved by Bell so admirably that some of them have been reproduced in every edition down to the present one.
The plan of the work differed from all preceding “dictionaries of arts and sciences,” as encyclopædias were usually called until then in Great Britain; it combined the plan of Dennis de Coetlogon (1745) with that in common use—on the one hand keeping important subjects together, and on the other facilitating reference by numerous and short separate articles arranged in alphabetical order. Though the infant Encyclopædia Britannica omitted the whole field of history and biography as beneath the dignity of encyclopædias, it speedily acquired sufficient popularity to justify the preparation of a new edition on a much larger scale. The decision to include history and biography caused the secession of Smellie; but MacFarquhar himself edited the work, with the assistance of James Tytler, famous as the first Scottish aeronaut, and for the first time produced an encyclopædia which covered the whole field of human knowledge. This Second Edition was issued in numbers from June 1777 to September 1784, and was afterwards bound up in ten quarto volumes, containing (8595 pages and 340 plates) more than three times as much material as the First Edition.
These earliest editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica consisted mainly of what may be described as compilation; like all their predecessors, from the time of Alsted to that of Ephraim Chambers, they had been put together by one or two men who were still able to take the whole of human knowledge for their province. It was with the Third Edition that the plan of drawing on specialist learning, which has since given the Encylopædia Britannica its high reputation, was first adopted. This edition, which was begun in 1788 and completed, in eighteen volumes, in 1797, was edited by MacFarquhar until his death in 1793, when about two-thirds of the work were completed. Bell, the surviving proprietor, then appointed George Gleig—afterwards Bishop of Brechin—as editor, and it was he who enlisted the assistance, as contributors, of the most eminent men of science then living in Scotland. Professors Robison, Thomas Thomson and Playfair were the most notable of these specialist contributors, and a Supplement in two volumes was issued in 1801 to allow them to extend their work to those earlier letters of the alphabet which had already been issued by MacFarquhar. It was their labours which first gave the Encyclopædia Britannica its pre-eminent standing among works of reference, and prepared the way for it to become, as a later editor claimed, not merely a register but an instrument of research, since thereafter the leading specialist in all departments were invited to contribute their unpublished results to its pages.
In the Fourth Edition, published by Andrew Bell in twenty volumes from 1801 to 1810, the principle of specialist contributions was considerably extended, but it was only brought to such degree of perfection as was possible at the time by Archibald Constable, “the great Napoleon of the realms of print,” who purchased the copyright of the Encyclopædia Britannica soon after Bell’s death in 1809. Constable lavished his energy and his money on the famous “Supplement to the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Editions,” which in 1813 he commissioned Macvey Napier to edit. It was with the appearance of this Supplement that the Encyclopædia Britannica ceased to be a purely Scottish undertaking, and blossomed out into that great cosmopolitan or international enterprise which it has since become. The most eminent writers, scholars and men of science in England and on the continent of Europe, as well as in Scotland itself, were enlisted in the work: Sir Walter Scott, Jeffrey, Leslie, Playfair and Sir Humphry Davy, Dugald Stewart—who received the then unprecedented sum of £1000 for a single contribution—Ricardo, Malthus and Thomas Young, with foreign men of science like Arago and Biot. From this time onward, indeed, a list of the contributors to successive editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica would be a list of the most eminent British and American writers and thinkers of each generation; the work had become the product of the organized co-operation of acknowledged leaders of the world’s thought in every department of human knowledge. For this advance the credit is mainly due to Constable.
The Fifth and Sixth Editions, each in twenty volumes, issued by Constable between 1815 and 1824, were practically reprints of the Fourth, the Supplement—issued in six volumes from 1816 to 1824—being considered adequate to supply their deficiencies. The Seventh Edition, edited by Macvey Napier on the same lines as the Supplement, of which it incorporated a great part, was brought out by a new publisher, Adam Black, who had bought the copyright on Constable’s failure. This edition was issued from 1830 to 1842, and was comprised in twenty-one volumes, which included a general index to the whole work. The Eighth Edition, under the editorship of T. Stewart Traill, was issued by the firm of A. & C. Black, from 1853 to 1860, in twenty-one volumes, with a separate index volume.
The Ninth Edition was then undertaken by the same firm on a scale which Adam Black considered so hazardous that his refused to have any part in the undertaking, and he accordingly advertised his retirement from the firm. This Edition began to appear in 1875, under the editorship of Thomas Spencer Baynes, and was completed in 1889 by William Robertson Smith. It consisted of twenty-four volumes, containing 21,572 pages and 302 plates, with a separate index volume. Adam Black’s prognostications of failure were signally falsified by the success of the work, of which nearly half a million sets—including American pirated and mutilated editions—were ultimately sold. The great possibilities of popularity for the Encyclopædia Britannica in Great Britain were only realized, however, when in 1898 The Times undertook to sell a verbatim reprint of the Ninth Edition at about half the price originally asked for it by the publishers. The success of this reprint led to the publication by The Times in 1902 of an elaborate supplement in eleven New Volumes (one containing new maps and one a comprehensive index to the whole work), constituting, with the previous twenty-four volumes, The Tenth Edition. The Eleventh Edition, which supersedes both Ninth and Tenth, and represents in an entirely new and original form a fresh survey of the whole field of human thought and achievement, written by some 1500 eminent specialists drawn from nearly every country of the civilized world, incorporating the results of research and the progress of events up to the middle of 1910, is now published by the University of Cambridge, where it is hoped that the Encyclopædia Britannica has at length found a permanent home.
It will be seen from this brief survey of the history of the Encyclopædia Britannica that, while the literary and scholarly success of the work has been uniform and continuous, its commercial career has naturally been subject to vicissitudes. Six different publishing firms have been at various times associated with its production; and the increasing magnitude of the work, consequent on the steady growth of knowledge, made this wellnigh inevitable. The Encyclopædia Britannica has to-day become something more than a commercial venture, or even a national enterprise. It is a vast cosmopolitan work of learning, which can find no home so appropriate as an ancient university.
The present publication of the new Encyclopædia Britannica by the University of Cambridge is a natural step in the evolution of the university as an educational institution and a home of research. The medieval University of Cambridge began its education labours as an institution intended almost exclusively for the instruction of the clergy, to whose needs its system of studies was necessarily in a large measure accommodated. The Revival of Learning, the Renaissance and the Reformation widened its sphere of intellectual work and its interests, as well as its actual curriculum. The 19th century saw the complete abolition of the various tests which formerly shut the gates of the English universities against a large part of the people. The early establishment in Cambridge of special colleges for women was also a sign of expanding activities. About the same time the University Extension movement, first advocated at Cambridge in 1871 on the ground that the ancient universities were not mere clusters of private establishments but national institutions, led to a wider conception of the possibilities of utilizing the intellectual resources of the universities for the general diffusion of knowledge and culture; and the system of Local Examinations brought the university into close contact with secondary education throughout the country. But the public to which the University of Cambridge thus appealed, though wider than that of the college lecture-rooms, was still necessarily limited. Practically it is only through the medium of the University Press that Cambridge can enter into and maintain direct relations with the whole of the English-speaking world. The present time seems appropriate for an effort towards thus signally extending the intellectual and educational influence of the university.
To this end, the University of Cambridge has undertaken the publication of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and now issues the Eleventh Edition of that work. These twenty-eight volumes and index aim at achieving the high ambition of bringing all extant knowledge within the reach of every class of readers. While the work, in its present form, is to some extent based on the preceding edition, the whole field has been re-surveyed with the guidance of the most eminent specialists. The editors early decided that the new edition should be planned and written as a whole, and refused to content themselves with the old-fashioned plan of regarding each volume as a separate unit, to be compiled and published by itself. They were thus able to arrange their material so as to give an organic unity to the whole work and to place all the various subjects under their natural headings, in the form which experience has shown to be the most convenient for a work of universal reference. An important consequence of this method of editing is that the twenty-eight volumes are now ready for publication at the same time, and that the complete work can be offered to the public in its entirety. Although the work has been reduced to the smallest compass consistent with lucidity—bibliographies of all subjects which call for assistance of this nature being provided in aid of more detailed study—the aim throughout has been to maintain the highest standard of scholarly authority, and to provide a thorough elucidation of important scientific problems for which the modern inquirer as no adequate text-books. This Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica is now, therefore, offered to the public by the University of Cambridge in the hope and belief that it will be found to be a trustworthy guide to sound learning, and an instrument of culture of world-wide influence.
- November 1, 1910.