Sidelights on the Britannica

Volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica (9th edition, 1875–1889) on a shelf.
Joi Ito via Wikimedia Commons

As part of our discussion of “The Red-Headed League” at our March meeting, we had a brief presentation on the story’s MacGuffin, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. We hope you’ll find it as interesting as we did.

Notes on the Encyclopaedia Britannica
by Janice M. Eisen

The Encyclopaedia Britannica was the English-language encyclopedia in print for the longest time: 244 years. The final printed edition, sadly, was issued in 2010.

It was first published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, in 3 volumes. It was born out of a period known as the Scottish Enlightenment, which also featured Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Sir Walter Scott’s novels, Robert Burns’ poetry, and David Hume’s philosophy.

Sherlock (and Jabez) would have used the landmark 9th edition, which was issued in 25 volumes (the 25th being the index) from 1875–1889. This edition is known as the “Scholar’s Edition” because it’s, well, the most scholarly; it is also noted for its wide range of contributors and literary style. There were roughly 1,100 contributors, including such prominent experts as James Clerk Maxwell, Algernon Swinburne, Matthew Arnold, Sir James Frazer, Edward Everett Hale, William Jevons, Baron Kelvin (of the temperature scale), Andrew Lang, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Morris, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Robert Louis Stevenson (one of whose contributions, an article about Robert Burns, was unenthusiastic and thus never printed). Thomas Huxley both contributed and was the general advisor on science. More than 70 of the contributors were from the United States and about 60 from the Continent; they also included a few Canadians and Australians and one New Zealander. A handful of the contributors were women; this edition was the first to include a significant article about women (“Women, Law Relating to”). Evolution was listed for the first time but treated as a still-controversial subject. Oddly, no biographies of living persons were included.

For the 9th edition, the Britannica adopted a controversial scientific approach to cultural topics. There was something of a kerfuffle over the articles on religion written by William Robertson Smith, a professor of theology at the Free Church College in Edinburgh and an intellectual prodigy who mastered advanced scientific and mathematical topics. He was the first contributor to the Britannica to address the historical interpretation of the Bible.

This edition had the Britannica’s first English-born editor-in-chief, Thomas Spencer Baynes, a professor of logic, metaphysics, and English literature at St. Andrews, who worked on it until his death in 1887. Smith’s controversial religious articles—in particular, his assertion that the Bible was not historically accurate—caused him to lose his teaching position in 1881, and he was immediately hired to be joint editor-in-chief, taking sole charge after Baynes’s death.

The 9th edition was much more luxurious than the 8th, with thick boards, high-quality leather bindings, premier paper, and production that took advantage of the latest technological advances, particularly the new ability to print large graphic illustrations on the same pages with the text, instead of only on separate copperplates. Roughly 8,500 sets were sold in Britain, a more than respectable number, but it was wildly popular in the States. Authorized sets for the US market were sold by Scribner’s and Little, Brown; they were identical to the British edition except for the title pages and of the same high quality. These publishers sold 45,000 such sets at $9 per volume. (This was a lot of money; while direct comparison is difficult, it would be well over $150 today.)

Americans also bought several hundred thousand cheaply produced pirated copies (because US law did not yet protect foreign copyrights). One Joseph M. Stoddart paid a spy in Britannica’s own print shop in Edinburgh to steal the proofreader’s copies and send them by fastest mail to him in Philadelphia, so he was able to publish his version simultaneously with the official one and for only $5 per volume. A court decision actually upheld his right to do so. Other pirates sold their versions even more cheaply. Finally, in 1896, Scribner’s, which had managed to copyright some of the articles, obtained court orders to shut down bootleg operations, including melting down their printing plates. Publishers got around this by rewriting the articles that Scribner’s had copyrighted.

Because Americans loved the Britannica so much, in 1901 all rights to publish it were acquired by a group of American businessmen, which left some lingering resentment among Britons, even a century later.

George Bernard Shaw claimed to have read the complete 9th edition, except for the science articles, during visits to the British Museum.

The encyclopedia’s appearance in “The Red-Headed League” was highlighted by the Lord Mayor of London at the celebration of the Britannica’s bicentennial in 1968.

Doyle biographer Charles Higham said that the use of the Britannica in the story serves as a sociological mirror of the times, confirming “the view of the upper middle class that the working orders were simply dolts.”

We’re told that Jabez Wilson wrote on the letter A. Presuming that he skipped the preface, he would have begun: “A, the first symbol of every Indo-European alphabet, denotes also the primary vowel sound.”

He tells Holmes that he got at least through “Attica,” making him astonishingly diligent. The first two volumes, A–Anatomy and Anaxagoras–ATH, contain over 1,600 pages of text (though some space is taken up by illustrations). The article on “Attica” is on pages 57–60 of Vol. 3. Wilson says he hoped soon to get to the Bs, which don’t start until p. 173.

Thomas L. Stix once calculated, based on the average page of the Britannica, that Wilson would have written 6,419,616 words. This seems a rather impossible amount to have copied out in 20 hours a week for eight weeks. There is at least one more mystery featuring the Britannica: Ruth Rendell wrote a mystery in which Vol. 8 was the murder weapon.

I’ll end with a poem by our eminent friend Christopher Morley:

Epitaph on the Proofreader of the Encyclopaedia Britannica
Majestic tomes, you are the tomb
Of Aristides Edward Bloom,
Who labored, from the world aloof,
In reading every page of proof.

From A to And, from Aus to Bis
Enthusiasm still was his;
From Cal to Cha, from Cha to Con
His soft-lead pencil still went on.

But reaching volume Fra to Gib,
He knew at length that he was sib
To Satan; and he sold his soul
To reach the section Pay to Pol.

Then Pol to Ree, and Shu to Sub
He staggered on, and sought a pub.
And just completing Vet to Zym,
The motor hearse came round for him.
He perished, obstinately brave:
They laid the Index on his grave.

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