MONDAY sees the 250th anniversary of the very first publication of the initial pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, arguably the most famous and successful book ever published in Edinburgh.

The capital is not going overboard in celebrating the anniversary of a book which helped gain it City of Literature title from Unesco, but do expect a major announcement on Monday from the National Library of Scotland.


THE first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica was produced by three young tradesmen, none of whom had published a book previously.

The two principal partners, who would retain the copyright of its first three editions, were printer Colin Macfarquhar (1744-1793) and engraver Andrew Bell (1753-1832).

Macfarquhar, a wig maker’s son, had just opened his printing firm in 1767. Bell, a baker’s son and an apprentice of Scotland’s leading engraver Richard Cooper, established his reputation as an engraver through pioneering work for the Scots Magazine, the oldest magazine in the world still in publication today.

It was there that Bell met William Smellie (1740-1795), himself a master printer, who was editor of the Scots Magazine from 1760 to 1765 and who would later be Robert Burns’ printer and co-found the Royal Society of Edinburgh. There is a plaque in his memory on the Royal Mile at Anchor Close acknowledging that he printed there both the Burns Edinburgh edition and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Smellie was the originating genius of the book but he was not financially acute at that time. For he agreed to compile the Britannica’s first edition for a flat fee of £200, while Bell and Macfarquhar made £25,000 from the Britannica’s first three editions.


IT was recognised from the off as a “must have” masterpiece. It appeared in 100 instalments from 1768 to 1771 and cost sixpence per instalment, or eightpence for an edition made from better paper. By 1771, some 3000 full sets had been sold at £12 each.

It was not without controversy. Andrew Bell produced three full pages of anatomically accurate depictions of dissected female pelvises and of foetuses in wombs for article on midwifery.

These illustrations so shocked King George III that he commanded that the pages be ripped from every copy.


SMELLIE admitted he borrowed from all sort of authors, but the prose is very much his. The entry for “Woman” is just four words: “The female of man.”

The first edition says that humans were divided into five categories: European, American, Asiatic, African and Monstrous.

The US state of “Callifornia” was spelt with two “L’s” and is described as “a large country of the West Indies. Unknown whether it is an island or a peninsula.”

The solar system was described as having six planets but that was not an error at the time – Uranus, Neptune and Pluto had yet to be discovered.

Smellie objected to biographies in the second edition and parted company with Macfarquhar and Bell, the latter becoming sole owner on the former’s death.