This week in 1768, Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell of Scotland published the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. It had just 3 volumes—quite a contrast to the thirty-two volumes of the fifteenth and final edition, published in 2010. Despite small beginnings, Britannica quickly gained a reputation for excellence and was soon considered the most authoritative English language encyclopedia. Ironically given the name, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. has become an American company. Sears Roebuck bought the rights in 1920, and the company now operates out of Chicago.
Sadly, the information economy offers little market for large collections of large books, so the 2010 edition was the last hard copy. But the company now publishes Encyclopædia Britannica Online. It’s going strong, though it faces fierce competition from free online encyclopedias like Wikipedia – which benefits from a staff of 7.7 billion potential writers, since it’s open source – and World History Encyclopedia.