Two Edinburgh businessmen, a bookseller and printer called Colin Macfarquhar and the engraver Andrew Bell, decided to publish a new encyclopaedia in response to the Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert. They contracted a 28-year-old scholar called William Smellie to edit the publication, paying him £200. Smellie abridged and edited articles from other sources, producing longer articles of grouped subjects as well as the usual shorter articles. Bell produced engravings for the 160 illustrations and Macfarquhar printed the texts at his Nicolson Street premises.

On 6th December 1768, the first part of the Encyclopædia Britannica or, a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences compiled under a New Plan went on sale, credited to “A Society of Gentlemen in Scotland”. It was the first of one-hundred thick quarto pamphlets costing sixpence each (or eight pence for a version on finer paper). The last part appeared in 1771, and later that same year the whole 2,391 page encyclopaedia went on sale bound in three collected volumes for £12 per set.

The venture proved to be a success although not without controversy. The midwifery section included illustrations of female pelvises and foetuses, which proved upsetting to some readers, notably King George III, who commanded that the offending pages be torn from every copy. Nevertheless, Macfarquhar and Bell decided to produce an expanded second edition in 1776, and the encyclopaedia continues to be published to this day, making it the oldest English-language encyclopaedia still in print.

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