Writing is on the wall for city’s book of knowledge

Children read volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica at the Central Library, Edinburgh
Children read volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica at the Central Library, Edinburgh
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EVERY page was stuffed with words of wisdom, fascinating facts and illustrations of curious creatures, sharing space with advice on how to make a life-saving potion and how many children a marriage might bring.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica was vital, if weighty, reading for anyone with a thirst for knowledge, who simply had to find out how to make a remedy from millipedes to help cure their urethral blockages, or felt the need to gaze upon an illustration of a giraffe which, unfortunately, looked more like a deformed deer.

In the mid-18th century, the Edinburgh-based publication was precisely what every learned gentleman and scholar required as pride of place in their ever-growing library.

Even though large chunks of some volumes would be penned by a poverty-stricken man as he leaned over the top of his landlady’s washtub – and who, incidentally, would eventually take to the skies in one of Europe’s most bizarre flying expeditions – the Encyclopaedia Britannica became an essential weapon in the armoury of the great minds of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Of course, the days of groundbreaking discoveries and world-changing ideas thrashed out in New Town drawing rooms were consigned to the history books long ago. And now, it has just been announced, so has the book of knowledge itself.

The US-based publisher of the modern Encyclopaedia Britannica confirmed yesterday it will no longer produce printed versions of the weighty tome. Instead, our love affair with apps and tablets, smartphones and websites, means the final chapter has been written in nearly 250 years of reference book history.

The modern 32-volume print edition, which originated in a small Edinburgh printing house, will be replaced by an expanded digital version aimed at taking on Wikipedia.

It’s a fate that surely none of the visionary and, it must be said, slightly eccentric characters behind those first editions could have dreamed of as they ploughed a challenging furrow through the world of knowledge, in an age when finding something out involved more than logging on to Google.

And if they had done, it’s likely that diminutive engraver and printer Andrew Bell would have made his feelings about the matter known. A mere 4ft 6in tall, he could easily have been overlooked by the great and good of Edinburgh, as he set about delivering knowledge right under their learned noses.

Alongside bookseller and printer Colin Macfarquhar, and driven by a determination to produce a book of knowledge unlike anything ever seen before, Bell set about creating the first ever Encyclopaedia Britannica from a printing office in Nicolson Street – setting in chain a sequence of events that would help educate millions across the world.

Quite how or why the pair became founders of one of the world’s best-known reference books, not even the Encyclopaedia Britannica can explain. For a start Bell, born in 1726, was the son of a baker with little formal education.

He was certainly striking. He made up for his lack of stature by ensuring he always rode the tallest horse available in Edinburgh, dismounting by the means of a ladder, a feat often accompanied by loud cheers from bemused onlookers.

Up close, he was remarkable too. He had crooked legs and an enormous nose which, bizarrely, he would sometimes draw even more attention to by augmenting it with an odd looking paper-mache version.

Bell served his apprenticeship as an engraver and would go on to produce almost all the copperplate engravings for the first to fourth editions of the encyclopaedia, among them graphic depictions of dissected female pelvises and foetuses for articles on midwifery that enraged King George III so much that he ordered the offending pages be ripped from every copy.

But Bell and Macfarquhar needed someone to produce the actual words for their book of knowledge.

William Smellie was a master printer who’d left school aged 12. In 1765, he received a letter from Bell asking him to take on the formidable task “to prepare the whole work for the press”. They formed the Society of Gentlemen, three- strong, with a vision to create a definitive dictionary of arts and sciences. The first edition of the Britannica was published in instalments between 1768 and 1771, an age when the dodo was still in existence, trial by water could condemn you to death and measles was a killer.

Its pages faithfully recorded that baldness was cured with freshly-cut onions, California was a large country in the West Indies and woman was “female of man”.

Bought by 3000 people, it was successful enough to warrant an updated second edition, but a row between Smellie and the Duke of Buccleuch – a major subscriber – over the inclusion of biographical information led to his resignation.

His place was taken by one of the city’s most colourful characters of the times, aviation fanatic James Tytler, the first man to successfully fly a hot air balloon in Great Britain.

He had left university at 15 and his fortunes had already swung from whaling ship surgeon to the debtors’ prison. As editor, he penned 9000 pages – increasing it from three volumes to nine – while hunched over his washerwoman landlady’s upturned washtub.

Tytler was paid a pittance for his efforts and supplemented his meagre income by working with Robert Burns writing lyrics for Scottish ballads and, bizarrely, writing a guide to Edinburgh’s prostitutes which rated their performance, looks and condition of their teeth.

It was while researching the encyclopaedia that he became fascinated with flight. And by 1784 he had made aviation history in his pioneering Grand Edinburgh Fire Balloon, launching himself upwards from a spot at Abbeyhill and soaring to around 40ft before settling, rather unfortunately, in a dung pile in Restalrig.

The encyclopaedia’s fortunes were even more uplifting. By 1830 it was into its seventh edition and had gained wide credibility. There were eminent contributors such as Sir Walter Scott writing about chivalry, drama and romance; George Bernard Shaw on socialism; Leon Trotsky on Lenin. Harry Houdini expounded on the subject of conjuring, Albert Einstein on time and space and Marie Curie on radium.

Unlike the dodo it survived, eventually switching its headquarters to London and then the US where travelling salesmen sold thousands of copies to families who saw it as a middle class status symbol.

The decision to end its print version, however, is no surprise to second-hand book dealer William Lytle, of Edinburgh Books in West Port.

“It’s been impossible to sell for years,” he says. “I’d have thought the writing was on the wall for a long time, that it would stop publishing.

“I am sometimes offered later editions but to be honest I’m more likely to rip out the illustrations and throw away the rest of the book.

“They were beautifully illustrated,” he adds. “And they had the top guys of the day writing for them, the likes of James Clerk Maxwell was science editor, for example. Volumes one and three of the first edition alone are priced at around £6000, later editions don’t sell.”

sdick@edinburghnews.com