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Encyclopædia Britannica

The Encyclopædia Britannica (properly spelt with æ, the ae-ligature) is the oldest English-language general encyclopedia. Its articles are commonly considered accurate, reliable, and well-written.

A product of the Scottish enlightenment, it was originally published in Edinburgh by Adam and Charles Black beginning in the 18th century. Unlike the French Encyclopédie, Britannica was an extremely conservative publication. Later editions were usually dedicated to the reigning monarch. The publication moved from Scotland to London and became associated with The Times newspaper in the 1870s for its ninth and tenth editions. Horace Everett Hooper was publisher from 1897 to 1922. For the eleventh edition the publication became associated with the University of Cambridge, also in England. The trademark and publication rights were sold after the 11th edition to Sears Roebuck and it moved to Chicago, Illinois, United States. Sears Roebuck offered it as a gift to the University of Chicago in 1941. William Benton figured as publisher from 1943 to his death in 1973, followed by his widow Helen Hemingway Benton until her own death in 1974. In January 1996 it was purchased by billionaire Swiss financier Jacqui Safra.

Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. now owns a trademark on the word "Britannica". As of 2004, the most complete version of Encyclopædia Britannica contains about 120,000 articles, with 44 million words, and a comprehensive index, the first of its kind for a major encyclopedia. It is published in paper form (32 volumes containing 65,000 articles, list price US$1400), online (120,000 articles, brief summaries of articles can be viewed for free, and the full text is available for US$11.95 per month or US$69.95 per year for individual subscribers), and on CD-ROM or DVD-ROM (more than 100,000 articles, US$50).

The current version of Britannica was written by over 4,000 contributors, including noted scholars such as Milton Friedman, Carl Sagan, and Michael DeBakey. Under the influence of the director of planning, Mortimer Adler, the 15th edition, first published in 1974 and frequently reissued since, was published not as one alphabetical sequence of volumes as previously but in three parts that covered topics in different degrees of depth: a one-volume Propædia that provides a structured hierarchy to all the information in the set, a 10-volume Micropædia which contains short articles, a 19-volume Macropædia for longer articles. A two-volume index was added in 1985. Thirty-five percent of the content of the encyclopedia has been re-written within the last two years.

Dale Hoiberg, a sinologist, is the publication's current editor-in-chief. Among his predecessors were Hugh Chisholm (19031913, 19201924), James Louis Garvin (19261932), Franklin Henry Hooper (19321938), Walter Yust (19381960), Harry S. Ashmore (19601963), Warren E. Preece (19641975), and Robert McHenry (19921997). Ted Pappas is the current executive editor. Earlier holders of that position were John V. Dodge (19501964) and Philip W. Goetz . Don Yannias , former CEO of the company when it was "hemorrhaging money", serves on Britannica's Board of Directors.

Microsoft approached Britannica to collaborate on a CD-ROM several years ago. Britannica, feeling that they had a stronghold on the market for encyclopedias and was showing strong profits (sales of the complete Britannica were priced between US$1,500 and US$2,200), turned Microsoft down. Britannica's senior management viewed their product as a luxury brand with an impeccable reputation handed down from generation to generation. They did not believe that a CD-ROM could adequately compete or supplement their business. In turn, Microsoft used content from Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia to create what is now known as Encarta. Encarta became a staple software with every computer purchase and Britannica's market share plummeted tremendously. Brittanica countered by offering a CD version of their product. The sales team at Brittanica was infuriated. Clearly, a CD could not generate US$500 to US$600 in sales commmisions as the print version did. In a poorly orchestrated move, Britannica decided on charging $995 for customers looking to purchase only the CD and included it in the print version for free. Britannica hoped that including the CD would entice buyers to stay with the brand while keeping the sales force happy. It didn't work.

In 1994, Brittanica tried again to save the brand and launched an online version with subscriptions for sale for US$2000. By 1996, the cost of the CD had dropped to US$200. Sales had plummeted to US$325 million - about half their 1990 levels (US$650 million). Over 117,000 hard copy versions were sold in 1990 vs 55,000 in 1994. By the end of 1996, Britannica was in serious trouble and was purchased by Jacqui Safra for a fraction of its book value.

Edition history

Edition Published Size
1st 17681771 3 vol.
2nd 17771784 10 vol.
3rd 17881797, 1801 sup. 18 vol. + 2 sup.
4th 18011809 20 vol.
5th 1815 20 vol.
6th 18201823, 18151824 sup. 20 vol. + 2 sup.
7th 18301842 21 vol.
8th 18521860 21 vol. + index
9th 18701890 24 vol. + index 1
10th 19021903 9th ed. + 9 sup 2
11th 19101911 29 vol 3
12th 19211922 11th ed. + 3 sup.
13th 1926 11th ed.+ 6 sup.
14th 19291973 24 vol. 4
15th 19741984 30 vol. 5
1985 32 vol. 6
Edition notes

vol. = volume, sup. = supplement

19th ed. featured articles by notables of the day, such as James Maxwell on electricity and magnetism, and William Thomson (who became Lord Kelvin) on heat.

210th ed. added a maps volume and an index volume.

311th ed. Considered to be the classic edition of Encyclopædia Britannica and available in the public domain (see 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica). This was the first edition to be published all at once instead of volume by volume.

4 This edition was the first to be kept up to date by continual (usually annual) revision.

5 The 15th edition (introduced as "Britannica 3") was published as multiple sets: the 10-volume Micropædia (containing short articles and served as an index), the 19-volume Macropædia, plus the Propædia (see text).

6In 1985 the system was modified by removing the index function from the Micropædia and adding a separate two-volume index; the Macropædia articles were further consolidated into fewer, larger ones (for example, the previously separate articles about the 50 U.S. states were all included into the "United States of America" article), with some medium-length articles moved to the Micropædia.

The first CD-ROM edition was issued in 1994. At that time also an online version was offered for paid subscription. In 1999 this was offered for free, and no revised print versions appeared. The experiment was ended, however, in 2001 and a new printed set was issued in 2002.


  • Herman Kogan, The Great EB: The Story of the Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958)
  • H. Einbinder, The Myth of the Britannica (New York: Grove Press, 1964)

External links

Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:33:50
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