The Blagger's Guide To ... the Encyclopaedia Britannica
After 244 years, it's the end of an information era
Sunday 18 March 2012
On a sad day for knowledge, metaphors, and door-to-door salespeople, Encyclopaedia Britannica announced last week that it will no longer publish its print edition, and henceforth it will only be available online and as an app.
* The first edition of the encyclopaedia was published over a three-year period, beginning in 1768. The three-volume set was completed in 1771 and quickly sold out. It was put together in Edinburgh in the heat of the Scottish Enlightenment. The latest 2010 edition will continue to be sold until the current stock, of about 4,000 copies, sells out.
*In the current edition the letter "A" is the first entry; Albert Zwyny, a Polish musician, is the last entry; the 32-volume set contains approximately 32,000 pages.
* In the first edition: Homo sapiens was sub divided into five varieties: the American, the European, the Asiatic, the African and the monstrous; cures for toothache involved drinking laxatives, or bleeding the foot; vermicelli noodles were first brought from Italy, where the food was in "great vogue" – it was chiefly used in soups and pottages "to provoke venery" or sexual gratification; the US state of "Callifornia" was described as "a large country of the West Indies – unknown whether it is an island or a peninsula"; the solar system had six planets – Uranus, Neptune and Pluto were yet to be discovered.
* Contributors have included Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Leon Trotsky, Harry Houdini, HL Mencken, Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Malthus, 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 article "Mass Production", signed by Henry Ford, is believed to have been written by his personal publicist.
* The Encyclopaedia Britannica is one of the most commonly requested books on Desert Island Discs. Those who have chosen it include Dame Maggie Smith, Charlton Heston, Gerald Durrell, Sid James, Bob Monkhouse, Cyril Smith and Morecambe and Wise.
* The Encyclopaedia Britannica is not without its critics. In 1917, Willard Huntington Wright published Misinforming a Nation, which panned the encyclopaedia's choices. "In the encyclopedia's department of literature, as in other departments of the arts, the pious middle-class culture of England is carefully and consistently forced to the front. English provincialism and patriotism not only dominate the criticism of this department, but dictate the amount of space which is allotted ...." However, last month Encyclopædia Britannica was named in the annual Superbrands survey of UK consumers as one of the world's most respected companies. In the "media" category it was beaten only by the BBC.
* In 2010, a search for the oldest Encyclopædia Britannica still in private hands led to the discovery of an 18-volume set from 1797. The books, still in regular use by a family in Chelmsford, were bought in the 1970s for £15 and are now thought to be worth about £9,000. "We had no idea that they were particularly rare or unusual," said the owner, Mrs Hampson, "but we've always loved them for their interesting contents and wonderful smell."
* The full Encyclopædia Britannica, frequently updated, is now available online, at britannica.co.uk, and as an app for the iPad.
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