Encyclopædia Britannica

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Encyclopædia Britannica, 14th and 15th editions

Encyclopædia Britannica, general encyclopedia published in print form from 1768 to 2012, and currently updated and posted online.[1] A three-volume set when first printed, Encyclopædia Britannica was the first major encyclopedia to be published in the English language as well as having the distinction of the longest unbroken period of time in print.[2] Some of its entries about American topics are refreshingly objective, without American liberal bias (e.g., its "Midwest" entry - "The influence of the Midwest on national life has been significant."[3])

Though well-written, the Britannica omits information about the faith (or lack thereof) of important historical figures. Like most encyclopedias and Wikipedia, the Britannica is largely an atheistic approach that mostly ignores the influence of faith. Also, many entries in the Britannica are about obscure academic, literary, or artistic persons, which reflects the greater influence of universities in Great Britain than in the United States. There are oddly many entries about obscure silent movie stars (predating about 1925). Political activists and cultural developments (such specific movies, or landmark automobile styles) are generally missing, as are important concepts (e.g., no separate entry for infinity; less than 250 words in its entry about chivalry (and less than 50 unenlightening words for its entry about Camelot); and less than 200 words about the Scopes Trial). Engineering entries are short and consist more of trivia than substance, as in its entry for the Empire State Building which is less than 90 words of trivia (15th ed.). To its credit, this encyclopedia has many entries about specific corporations which are hard to find elsewhere. In general, all its entries are enlightening, and the encyclopedia continues to be consulted as a superb reference.[4]

Britannica lacks specific entries about artwork, such as the Mona Lisa or American Gothic, which has immense historical significance in themselves apart from artists, about whom entries might exist. Britannica has a terse, superficial entry about the Titanic that focuses on speculation why it sank, rather than the heroism, chivalry, and tragedy associated with its sinking. Britannica lacks a separate entry about the Codex Vaticanus, one of the most important early manuscripts of the New Testament. Britannica lacks an entry about James Strong, despite his immense influence over 19th and 20th English translations of the Bible.

Today Britannica is exclusively digital, with versions available on CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, and via subscription on the internet.[5] It has survived fierce competition from an ever-growing number of online information sources. In 2012, Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., announced that the 2010 edition will be the last to be published in paper form and that only 1% of the company's sales will come from the press.[6][7]


Encyclopædia Britannica was published in 15 editions, with several editions considered supplements to the third, fifth, ninth, and eleventh editions. Throughout history, Britannica has had two goals: to be an excellent source of reference, and to provide educational material[8]. In 1974, the 15th edition set a third objective: to systematize all human knowledge[9]. Prior editions were in a straight alphabetical format; however, the 15th edition partially dispensed with this arrangement and reorganized the work into three distinct parts:

The Micropædia

Ten volumes beginning in 1974, expanded to twelve by 2010, this section contained a "ready reference" of articles written in a three-column format per page, with most of them written with 750 words or less. The format - in addition to a slightly-smaller typeface than the other sections - enabled the placement of about 65,000 articles within the Micropædia. Index references were in use after each article until 1985, and articles were generally unsigned.

The Macropædia

Nineteen volumes and 4,207 articles in 1974, reduced to seventeen volumes and 700 articles by 2010. The Macropædia contains "knowledge in depth"; its articles go into great detail on various subjects, and are often more than twenty pages in length, with some in excess of two hundred pages. Expansions of the brief summaries contained within the Micropædia, these articles were signed by its contributers.

However, there are glaring omissions in the Macropædia which include a lack of entries in that detailed part of Britannica on "soul" and "Romanticism".

The Propædia

A single volume, the Propædia is the "outline of knowledge", i.e. a study guide meant to tie many like-articles into major themes on various subjects, and effectively turning Britannica into a tool for self-education. This volume also contains a listing of the editors and contributors to the whole, some 4,400 authors, many of whom were highly-degreed, with some Nobel laureates. The structure of the Propædia has led to confusion as well as criticism, leading to a restoration of a two-volume index beginning in 1985.


Though considered the first major encyclopedia written in English, Britannica was by no means the first work of this kind, That honor went to Ephraim Chambers (1680-1740) with his two-volume Cyclopedia (1728),[10] a work which went through three editions during Chambers' lifetime, and five more after his death. This work in turn influenced in France the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers[11] ("Encyclopedia, or Dictionary of Sciences, Arts and Crafts"), which was published from 1751 to 1772, and edited by Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert. Though the intent was to translate Chambers' work, the project quickly expanded from an initial 8 volumes to 28, a work that became truly French. The historical significance of this particular encyclopedia is due to the fact that it contained a systematic review of the ideas of the French Enlightenment; indeed, many of the enlighteners themselves, from Jean Jacques Rousseau to Voltaire, had worked on it.

The Encyclopédie in turn inspired a pair of enterprising Scotsman, Andrew Bell and Colin Macfarquhar, who conceived the idea of publishing their own version. A third person, scholar William Smellie, came in to serve as editor. A product of the Scottish Enlightenment, this first edition of Encyclopædia Britannica was published and sold between 1768 and 1771, and was composed of just three volumes hastily completed - A-B, C-L and M-Z - for a total of 2659 pages and a starting price of sixpence. Some 160 engravings by Bell illustrated the work. In 1797, when the third edition was completed, it had been expanded to 18 volumes dealing with a wide range of subjects, with entries provided by a set of authorities in their field.

Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th edition (1875 - 1889)

Until the eighth edition, Britannica was published in Edinburgh. In 1870, the publishing house came under the auspices of The Times and moved to London, where the ninth and tenth editions were published. The ninth edition, due to its authority in the university environment, received the unofficial name "The scholar's edition"[12]. In the tenth edition a cartographic volume and an index appeared for the first time.

The eleventh, or "Cambridge" edition[13], in which the encyclopedia has practically acquired a modern look, was conducted by the University of Cambridge with the participation of 1,500 experts. Even though the total word count was almost the same as in previous editions, the number of articles increased from 17,000 to 40,000, and the volume was reduced from 35 to 29 volumes. The 1911 edition was the first edition with a large participation of women authors of articles[14]. The eleventh edition came out with a change in the traditional format for publishing volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica: it was prepared for publication in its entirety, in contrast to previous editions, in which the volumes were published as they were gradually updated.

In 1922, three more volumes were released, covering events that have occurred in recent years, including the First World War. They, together with the reprinted eleventh edition, compiled the twelfth edition of Britannica. Similarly, the thirteenth edition looked like a reprint of the twelfth with the addition of three new volumes, published in 1926. The fourteenth edition, published in 1929, has undergone significant revisions, with many articles being shortened or modified to make room for new topics. Nevertheless, the eleventh edition became the basis for every subsequent edition of Encyclopedia Britannica until the release of the 15th edition in 1974.


  • Gillian, Thomas. A Position to Command Respect: Women and the Eleventh Britannica; Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1992[1]

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