On the Evolution of the World’s Oldest Encyclopedia


Encyclopedias are not like rose bushes, for which pruning is everything. They are usually the opposite, more like Japanese knotweed, spreading wildly and germinating freely, invasive and persistent in all countries where a foothold is possible.

When the second edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica completed its publication in 1784, sixteen years after the first, it had greatly increased its scope and cost, and had grown from three volumes to ten. It was issued in 181 installments, usually weekly, between 1777 and 1784, a total of 8595 pages (although some of the pagination was erratic: page 7099 was followed immediately by page 8000). The cost per issue had risen from 6 pence to 1 shilling, while the cost of the total set a year after completion was 12 pounds, more than four times the first edition. To afford it all, a skilled London carpenter would have to save everything he earned (and go without food) for fifteen years.

Its increase in size was due partly to the addition of biography, primarily of dead writers, artists and churchmen. The majority were Britons, with a heavy bias towards the Scots. Isaac Newton received one of the longest entries at almost three pages, while Pythagoras received a single column (he “made his scholars undergo a severe noviciate of silence for at least two years; and it is said that where he discerned too great an itch for talking, he extended it to five”).

One of the few living subjects was George III, who appeared briefly in entries on his ancestors. And women were no longer just the female of man; they too now received biographical reverence, not least the literary lights Eliza Haywood, Aphra Behn and Laetitia Pilkington. (Pilkington appears to have been astute at all manner of literary pursuits. Caught by her husband with another man in her bedroom one night, she explained that it wasn’t what it seemed: the man had simply refused to let her borrow a book she wanted, but he was perfectly content to have her read it in his company until she reached a, well, happy ending.)

Encyclopedias are not like rose bushes, for which pruning is everything. They are usually the opposite.

Most of the 1000-plus biographies were laudatory and moralistic, with rulers commonly praised for advancing the lives of their people (encouragement for the biographical expansion seems to have stemmed from the Duke of Buccleuch, one of Britannica’s most generous subscribers). Kathleen Hardesty Doig observes that when it comes to the entries on writers, most “lead exemplary lives while composing masterpieces,” while the more arresting lifestyles of the ancients pass without censure, not least Nero’s cross-dressing and Sappho’s lesbianism. When it comes to religion, only Protestant ethics are commended.

What made this edition twice as expensive as its forerunner? Certainly its greater length, but certainly not its new editor James Tytler. The second edition had the same publishers, Andrew Bell and Colin Macfarquhar, and their replacement for William Smellie must have raised eyebrows in the literary world. For James Tytler wasn’t an established part of it and not one of them; he was a pharmacist, a songwriter, and once served as a surgeon on a whaler ship. He edited and wrote pamphlets, although his intended masterwork, printed on his small, self-built press, Essays on the Most Important Subjects of Natural and Revealed Religion, was abandoned in mid-sentence on page 64. The closest he got to commercial publishing may have been his supposed authorship, just two years before, of a detailed guide to Edinburgh’s prostitutes. But he came cheap, at 16 shillings a year, and he took to his new task with gusto.

Tytler’s tastes ran wide and happily odd. His work on the second edition was both authoritative and subjective, his opinions controversial and his technique slipshod. He compared the work to a navigator’s compass, though a reader often ran aground. Some editorial decisions appear both baffling and appealingly romantic, not least the open-handed approach to the veracity of mythical creatures and beasts of the sea (mermaids were just the beginning). Other strange judgments we credit to the exciting times.

The entry on Bastard informs that anyone who fathers an illegitimate child under a particular oak tree in Staffordshire will be safe from reprimand. And there was no way of knowing how much the steam engine, afforded seven pages, might prove more significant in the world than Fluxions, an impenetrable type of mathematical calculation, afforded six.

In the realms of history and geography, his entries were notably expanded: America increased from thirty-one lines to twenty pages, Britain from five lines to eighty-one pages, and France from fifteen lines to twenty-six pages. But within those pages, written when the Revolution was either under way or complete, many American states are still apparently under colonial rule of the British, and Native Americans are depicted as lazy except when they’re out for “revenge.” The entry Colony explains that “the sad reverse that has taken place is well known to all our readers. For us to depict it would be a task equally superfluous and painful.”

In a similar (and to the modern reader, shocking) tone, there are “inferior” people all over. Cypriots are lazy; the Hottentots are lazy and stupid; Highlanders are savage. The Chinese are in “misery due to the corruption of their magistrates. Closer to home, in the entry on Leith, we learn that the commodities exported to the West Indies include wine, clothing, shoes and Negroes. Elsewhere, vivid exoticism is the key: the Congo contains ants that will surround men and beasts at night “and devour even to the very bone,” while Mount Etna in Sicily contains a funnel with a “tremendous and unfathomable gulph, so much celebrated in all ages, both as the terror of this life, and the place of punishment in the next.”

The new Britannica omits to credit its contributors, providing instead an extended bibliography (four times the length of the first edition’s) prefaced by this explanation:

To accomplish a task so arduous and important, neither labour nor expense has been spared. The best authors on each particular science have been collected and compared. Such as could be abridged without disadvantage have been epitomized with all possible care: others who were more concise and tenacious of their subjects have been more closely pursued and more faithfully retained. When topics have been obscurely or imperfectly treated, the utmost endeavours have been used to supply [amend] these defects, and upon such parts of science as the compilers have not found properly illustrated by other authors, original essays are inserted. Nor do these amount to an inconsiderable number.

Certainly there is much lyrical, useful and entertaining learning to be had. Among the G’s:

Galaxy: In astronomy, that long, white, luminous track which seems to encompass the heavens like a swath, scarf or girdle, and which is easily perceived in a clear night, especially when the moon does not appear. The Greeks call it Galaxy of Milk on account of its colour and appearance; the Latins, for the same reasons, call it via lactea; and we, the milky way. The ancient poets and even philosophers speak of the Galaxy as the road or way by which the heroes went to heaven.

Galileo (Galilei): The famous mathematician and astronomer, was the son of a Florentine nobleman, and born in the year 1564…In 1592 he was chosen professor of mathematics at Padua, and during his abode there he invented, it is said, the telescope; or, according to others, improved that instrument, so as to make it fit for astronomical observations. Having observed some solar spots in 1612, he printed that discovery the following year in Rome; in which, and in some other pieces, he ventured to assert the truth of the Copernican system, and brought several new arguments to confirm it.

For these he was cited before the Inquisition, and after some months’ imprisonment was released upon a simple promise that he would renounce his heretical opinions and not defend them by word or writing. But having afterwards, in 1632, published at Florence his “Dialogues of the two greatest systems of the world, the Ptolemaic and Copernican,” he was again cited before the Inquisition and committed to the prison of that ecclesiastical court at Rome…on this sentence he was detained a prisoner till 1634, and his “Dialogues of the system of the world” were burnt at Rome.

Gnomes: Certain imaginary beings, who, according to the cabalists, inhabit the inner parts of the earth. They are supposed small in stature, and the guardians of quarries, mines &c. See Fairy.

Fairy: In ancient tradition and romances signifies a sort of deity or imaginary genius, conversant on the earth, and distinguished by a variety of fantastical actions either good or bad. They were most usually imagined to be women of an order superior to human nature, yet subject to wants, passions, accidents, and even death; sprightly and benevolent while young and handsome; morose, peevish and malignant if ugly or in the decline of their beauty; fond of appearing in white…


One of the greatly expanded entries is on Gardening, occupying thirty-eight pages. The occupation has been newly “entitled to a considerable rank among the liberal arts,” being “an exertion of fancy” and “a subject for taste.” The author remarks that gardening is no longer confined merely to gardens, but may be applied to a park, a farm or a riding, and in all these areas it is a gardener’s duty to improve beauty and correct faults. But beware of over-embellishment: Woburn Farm in Surrey is excessively ornamental.

Some editorial decisions appear both baffling and appealingly romantic.

There is much firm guidance. “Mere rocks, unless they are peculiarly adapted to certain impressions, may surprise, but can hardly please: they are too far removed from common life, too barren and inhospitable; rather desolate than solitary, and more horrid than terrible.” Several English gardens are then appraised in detail, not least the rolling spread at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, and as each season is considered in turn there is much to delight the student of the obvious. In late summer, “maturity is always immediately succeeded by decay: flowers bloom and fade; fruits ripen and rot; the grass springs and withers…in the latter months of autumn, all nature is on the decline; it is a comfortless season…”

But Gardening is outdone by Pyrotechny. This explodes on to thirty-one pages, enlightened by four pages of Andrew Bell’s copperplate engravings. We learn of the varying roles of saltpetre, brimstone, benjamin and spur-fire, and what combination is needed for water rockets, rains and spiral wheels. There is detailed instruction on mortars and fuses, while the step-by-step guide to making “crackers” (bangers) is crackers:

Cut some cartridge paper into pieces 3½ inches broad and 1 foot long; one end of each fold down lengthwise about ¾ of an inch broad; then fold down the double edge down ¼ of an inch, and turn the single edge back half over the double fold…Then fold it over and over till all the paper is doubled up, rubbing it down every turn; this done, bend it backwards and forwards 2½ inches or thereabouts…

And so on for many, many folds before you could add the touchpaper and then visit your local hospital. And this is nothing compared to the complexities of making the homemade fireworks “Fixed Sun with a Transparent Face” or “Illuminated Chandelier.” Editor Tytler almost certainly composed this lengthy entry himself, joining his contributions on Chemistry, Earthquake, Electricity, Heat and Hot-air Ballooning, the last a newfound passion.

Inspired by the recent ascent of the Montgolfier brothers, Tytler thought “How hard can it be?” In 1784 he secured financial backing for his first flight in a balloon 40 feet high and 30 feet in diameter. He fired up his coal-burning contraption in Comely Gardens in Edinburgh, and he was cheered off, according to one account, by “a crowd of cronies and backers, including a well-known golf caddie nicknamed Lord North.” He flew for about half a mile before crashing onto a road. He went up again shortly afterwards and became entangled in a tree.

Robert Burns immortalized him as “Balloon Tytler” in his Notes on Scottish Song. Back on the ground, Tytler made a modest contribution to the third edition of Britannica, but then sailed for America, where he pursued various schemes, not least excessive drinking, and one drunken night he ventured out into the snow, caught a deathly cold and died.


Excerpted from All the Knowledge in the World: The Extraordinary History of the Encyclopedia by Simon Garfield. Copyright © 2023. Available from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.