Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

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Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

310 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, Illinois 60604-4202
(312) 347-7000
Fax: (312) 347-7135

Private Company
Employees: 1,505
Sales: $586 million
SICs: 2731 Book Publishing

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., has published one of the worlds finest encyclopedias for more than two centuries. The Britannica is respected throughout the world for its combination of breadth and thoroughness in its treatment of everything from the Punic Wars to quantum mechanics, and many of its articles, written by outstanding scholars in their respective fields, are masterpieces of compact erudition unlike anything else in the field of learning. Today, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., markets the Britannica in more than 100 countries around the world and is also the parent company of Merriam-Webster, Inc., publishers of the famed dictionaries; Comptons MultiMedia Publishing Group, Inc.; Evelyn Wood, Inc.; and Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation, which markets audio-visual and electronic learning aids as well as books to schools and libraries. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., is owned in turn by the William Benton Foundation of Illinois, a charitable foundation supporting programs in journalism and the media at the University of Chicago.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica was first published between 1768 and 1771 by a society of gentlemen in Scotland, printed in Edinburgh for A. Bell and C. Macfarquhar, and sold by Colin Macfarquhar at his printing office in Nicolson-street, as the First Editions title page informed its readers. The idea of uniting in a single publication all aspects of human knowledge went back at least to Roman times, but it was in the eighteenth century, the age of enlightenment, that encyclopedias in the modern form began to appear in Europe. The French Encyclopedic, first published in 1751, became the symbol of French radical humanism and generated international controversy for its allegedly blasphemous philosophy, but there is no evidence that the creators of the Encyclopaedia Britannica were directly inspired by the fame of the Encyclopedic (which in fact was begun as a translation of an earlier work by the Englishman Ephraim Chambers).

Andrew Bell, a prosperous engraver of Edinburgh, and the printer Colin Macfarquhar were convinced that the English-speaking world could use a reference work featuring substantial treatises on the arts, sciences, and trades combined alphabetically with shorter entries defining important terms and concepts. The two men engaged William Smellie, a twenty-eight-year-old scholar at the University of Edinburgh, as general editor of the First Edition of their proposed Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was published and sold in one hundred parts between 1768 and 1771. The Encyclopaedia contained 2,659 pages, including articles borrowed from such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin (on electricity) and John Locke (on human understanding). The editors themselves wrote many of the shorter articles, while the longest pieces (Surgery and Anatomy) were treatises of well over one hundred pages each. The new encyclopedia sold well, and its editors began immediate preparations for a second, much larger edition.

James Tytler succeeded Smellie as editor of the Second Edition, which was published between 1777 and 1784 in ten volumes totaling 8,595 pages and 340 copperplates engraved by Bell. The Second Edition was among the first encyclopedias to include articles on history and biography, two subjects which have since become standard. It was followed by a Third Edition of eighteen volumes completed in 1797, edited by Macfarquhar and George Glieg, later a bishop and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. (Macfarquhar died in 1793 at the age of forty-eight, worn out, as later publisher Archibald Constable put it, by fatigue and anxiety of mind.) By this time the Britannica was well known and widely sought after; the Third Edition sold between 10,000 and 13,000 copies and is said to have returned the substantial profit of £42,000 to Andrew Bell, its sole proprietor after the death of Macfarquhar.

Bell remained the owner and manager of the Britannica until his own death in 1809, after which his heirs sold the companys stock and copyrights for £13,500 to Archibald Constable, an Edinburgh publisher. Constable was an able promoter and manager, and under his direction the Britannica made important advances in the quality of its writing and increased sales both in Great Britain and the United States. Constables Fifth Edition of 1817 was criticized as little more than a reprint of Bells Fourth, but soon afterward a six-volume Supplement appeared which cemented the reputation of the Britannica as the premier encyclopedia of the English-speaking world. Constable was the first Britannica publisher to solicit new articles from the leading scholars and artists of his day, and among the contributors to the Supplement and the Sixth Edition, both completed in 1824, were such distinguished men of letters as William Hazlitt, Walter Scott, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus. Constable died in 1827, before he could make a start on the planned Seventh Edition.

Copyrights to the essays were bought at auction by Adam Black, an Edinburgh bookseller, who collaborated with his relative Charles Black and their sons to publish the Britannica for the next seventy years as A & C Black Ltd. The Seventh Edition, edited by Macvey Napier, appeared between 1830 and 1842 and included a set of introductory essays intended to describe the progress of human knowledge since medieval times in four fundamental classificationsmetaphysical, moral, and political philosophy; mathematics and physics; chemistry; and zoology, botany, and mineralogy. Similar attempts to organize all knowledge under a handful of rubrics had been common among encyclopedists from Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century to the French philosophes, but the increasing scope and complexity of science in the nineteenth century discouraged the Britannica from making any further efforts in this direction. Indeed, so rapid was the progress of scientific and historical knowledge in the age of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx that by the 1860s the children of Adam Black were eager to publish a totally new Britannica in tune with the startling changes of their age. The resulting Ninth Edition (completed in 1889) has since been acknowledged as one of the most impressive collections of scholarship ever produced, its articles written by outstanding experts in every domain of the arts and sciences. Thomas Henry Huxley, the distinguished biologist, served as general advisor for the scientific articles; typical of the contributors excellence was the example of Prince Pyotr Kropotkin, the famed Russian political theorist, who wrote his essay on Anarchism from his prison cell in Clairvaux, France.

The Ninth Edition sold about 10,000 sets in Great Britain between 1875 and 1898, but it found a far larger market in the United States, where its authorized publisher, Charles Scrib-ners Sons, sold no fewer than 45,000 sets during the same period. Unfortunately, international copyright laws had not been agreed upon between the two countries and several hundred thousand other, pirated Britannicas were sold in the United States, many of them incomplete or mutilated. Such marketing problems discouraged the Black family, which in 1897 agreed to turn over promotion of the Britannica to an American company led by Horace E. Hooper and Walter M. Jackson. The two men negotiated an agreement with the Times of London whereby that paperthe most respected in England, but also in financial troublewould advertise, sell, and receive commissions for the latest reprint of the Ninth Edition. Although the scheme appeared improbable to many Englishmen, it succeeded in keeping the Britannica alive until Hooper and Jackson could purchase all copyrights and plates of the encyclopedia in 1901, thus bringing the symbol of Englands cultural dominance into American hands at about the same time as the Empire lost its economic and political leadership to the United States.

Hooper and Jackson formed companies in both the United States and England to market their unique product. Both men were experienced publishers and booksellers, and in their efforts to find outlets for the Britannica they were aided in no small measure by the genius of Henry Haxton, a free-wheeling advertising executive who devised all manner of ad campaigns, games, and contests to generate popular interest in the formerly staid Britannica. After the publication in 1902 of a revised and supplemented version of the Ninth Edition marketed as the Tenth, Horace Hooper began work in earnest on a completely new Eleventh Edition. His enthusiasm was not matched by Walter Jackson and the two men gradually dissolved their partnership, but the Eleventh Edition sailed on under the editorial guidance of Hugh Chisholm in London and Franklin Hooper (the brother of Horace) in America. To reassure London bankers of the new editions salability, Horace Hooper negotiated an arrangement with Cambridge University by which the latter would lend its prestigious name to the encyclopedia in exchange for a degree of editorial control and royalties on sales. Suitably impressed, London financiers provided the capital needed to support publication of the twenty-nine volume Eleventh Edition in 1910 and 1911. Among its contributors were Matthew Arnold, R. L. Stevenson, and Alfred North Whitehead, and, like the Ninth Edition, the Eleventh would be long remembered as a treasure of world scholarship. The edition was the first to be dedicated to the American president as well as the British monarch, and the first to be printed by the large American printing firm of R. R. Donnelley and Sons. Despite its wealth of distinguished contributors and the imprimatur of Cambridge University, sales of the Eleventh were slowed by the First World War and the Britannica found itself once again in severe financial difficulty.

American marketing provided the solution again, this time via the retailing giant Sears, Roebuck & Co. Horace Hooper had long been the friend and golfing partner of Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears and a well-known philanthropist in his own right. Rosenwald took an interest in the fortunes of the Britannica, and in 1915 Sears agreed to market a new, less expensive version of the Eleventh Edition designed to appeal to the middle-class buyer throughout the English-speaking world. Sales remained weak, however, and in 1920 Sears bought Encyclopaedia Britannica Company outright, retaining Horace Hooper as publisher and his brother Franklin as editor in New York, with Hugh Chisholm remaining London editor. Searss purchase of the Britannica was a philanthropic gesture rather than a business decision, as it was clear by this time in its history that the encyclopedia would be chronically short of cash. Indeed, after three years of operation Sears reported a loss of $1.8 million at the Britannica, and in 1923 sold the company back to the widow of Horace Hooper (who had died in 1922) and her brother, William J. Cox.

The Twelfth and Thirteenth editions were published in 1922 and 1926, but these were merely reprints of the Eleventh edition along with supplementary material. Since the publication of the Eleventh edition in 1910, the First World War had profoundly altered the shape of western civilization, and in the late 1920s William Cox began the laborious process of raising the $2.5 million needed for a completely rewritten Fourteenth Edition. Rosenwald and Sears offered to contribute a million dollars if the University of Chicago could be persuaded to take over the role of general editor formerly filled by Cambridge. Chicagoand later Harvardrefused, however, and Sears was saddled with nearly all of the new Editions cost, reassuming ownership in 1928 just prior to publication. Sales were good until the Great Depression paralyzed economies around the world in October 1929, when it became obvious that the Britannica would require radically new marketing techniques if it were not to prove a permanent liability for Sears. After the death of Julius Rosenwald in 1932, the company replaced William Cox as president with Elkan H. Buck Powell, a Sears secretary and treasurer.

Powell completely restructured Britannica. On the sales side, he scrapped the attempt to market the encyclopedia via Sears outlets and instead built a nationwide network of sales representatives who went door to door and also staffed booths at conventions, shopping centers, and the like. Of greater importance was Powells decision to publish the Britannica continuously by revising a portion of its articles each year, thus keeping the entire work in print and relatively up to date at the same time. Previously, the financial health of the encyclopedia had been made unpredictable by its long publication cycle, which over a fifteen- to thirty-year period called first for a massive editorial effort with virtually no sales followed by an intensive sales program with no need for editors, until the growing obsolescence of the current work made a new edition necessary and the cycle began again. Powell recognized that such a pattern was inherently inefficient and in 1938 introduced the new system of continuous revision and publication, which has remained in effect ever since.

Although sales picked up during the 1930s under Powells leadership, Sears chairman General Robert E. Wood was not comfortable with the companys ownership of the Britannica. In 1941 a vice-president of the University of Chicago named William Benton suggested that Sears again try to interest the University in running the Britannica. Benton was the remarkable co-founder of the advertising agency Benton and Bowles; after amassing a comfortable fortune he retired in 1935 (at the age of 35) and soon became active at the University of Chicago. Believing passionately in the importance of the Britannica, he urged the University to accept General Woods offer to give it the companys stock, but the Universitys board of trustees balked at the financial risk. Benton thereupon offered to put up needed working capital if the University would agree to lend its name and editorial advice to the venture. An agreement was reached in 1943 by which Benton acquired two-thirds of the stock in a new company, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., of which he became chairman, while the University received one-third of the company stock, a royalty on sales, and an option to buy another third of the company. Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, was named chairman of the Board of Editors of the Britannica, but the University assumed neither financial responsibility nor managerial control of the company.

In 1938 Britannica began publishing the Britannica Book of the Year (now called the Britannica World Data Annual), a yearly synopsis of world events, and in 1952 it brought out the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World. Edited by Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, who also wrote its two-volume index known as the Syntopicon, the Great Books attempted to trace the development of Western thought from the ancient Greeks to Sigmund Freud by collecting 443 critically important texts by 74 different authors. Britannica revised the Great Books in 1990 to include many twentieth-century authors as well. In 1943 Britannica branched into the world of film with the acquisition of ERPI, a division of Western Electric that owned the nations largest collection of films for the classroom. Known first as Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, Inc., the company became Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation in 1966 and eventually expanded into filmstrips, video, and laserdisc technology as well as conventional films and reference books for school markets.

Under the continued leadership and financial support of William Benton, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., was able to buy out the University of Chicagos share of stock in 1952 and begin preparations for the radically new Fifteenth Edition that would appear in 1974. Not only did Encyclopaedia Britannica survive, but thanks to the generosity of Benton it became the parent company of a host of other reference publishers, including Merriam-Webster, publisher of the famous dictionaries by that name, and F. E. Compton Company, fellow makers of encyclopedias. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., went international in 1957 with the publication of the sixteen-volume Enciclopedia Borsa in Spanish, a joint venture that would later distribute Britannica products throughout Latin America under the name Encyclopaedia Britannica Publishers. Britannica went on to publish native-language encyclopedias in countries including Japan, the Peoples Republic of China, France, Italy, and Korea, all of them after 1974 under the management of Encyclopaedia Britannica International. The latter oversees all of Britannicas foreign business, which by 1990 included offices in 130 countries and operating companies in 17 countries.

William Benton died in March 1973, just before the Britannicas new Fifteenth Edition was published. Britannica 3, as the new edition was christened, incorporated the most radical changes in the encyclopedia since its founding two hundred years before. Britannica 3 was composed of a ten-volume Micropaedia for handy reference use, a nineteen-volume Macropaedia for reading in depth, and a one-volume Propaedia, or guide to the encyclopedias use. This hybrid creation was the subject of a front-page article in the New York Times and has been a source of considerable debate between those readers who prefer the traditional format and those who favor the innovative Fifteenth Edition. In 1985 a two-volume index was added, as well as other refinements. Britannica launched an extensive public relations campaign to promote its experiment; the results were excellent as measured by sales, but dissatisfaction with the Britannica 3 remains more widespread than the parent company would likely admit.

Succeeding Benton as publisher and chairman of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., was Robert P. Gwinn, a University of Chicago graduate, member of the board of directors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and at that time chairman of Sunbeam Corporation. It was Gwinn who decided on the division of the companys operations into Encyclopaedia Britannica USA (now EB North America) and Encyclopaedia Britannica International in 1974, in addition to the Merriam-Webster, Comptons, and Educational divisions. Under the leadership of Gwinn, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., increased total revenues every year between 1974 and 1990 (with the single exception of 1980), with sales more than doubling during the 1980s alone. A large portion of the parent companys revenue is contributed by Encyclopaedia Britannica North America, which sells the Britannica in thousands of display booths located at shopping malls, fairs, trade shows, and rail terminals, among other venues; its representatives also visit private residences upon appointment.

In 1980 all shares of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., were transferred to the William Benton Foundation of Illinois, created as a non-profit supporting organization of the University of Chicago. By placing Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., in the hands of a foundation the Bentons hoped to ensure the companys long-term independence, both in its editorial philosophy and as a financial entity protected from hostile takeovers. Robert Gwinn was also named chairman of the Benton Foundation.

Recent developments at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., have included the 1985 publication of a revised version of the Fifteenth Edition (with the number of articles in the Macropaedia reduced from 4,200 to only 681); the formation of Britannica Software (now Comptons New Media, Inc.) as a separate division working on the design of educational computer programs; acquisition of two reading-skills enterprises, American Learning Corporation and Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics; publication in 1990 of a revised and expanded Great Books of the Western World, including six additional volumes and 20th-century authors; and the 1989 release of Comptons MultiMedia Encyclopaedia, a version of that encyclopedia transferred to compact disc for computer use. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., also created a new Far Eastern Pacific Region in its international division, and in 1990 announced that it was embarking on a joint venture with Soviet publishers to produce a Russian-language encyclopedia. While Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., appears well prepared for survival in the age of global electronics, the company says there are no plans to publish the Encyclopaedia Britannica in any format other than its traditional, hardbound print volumes.

Principal Subsidiaries

Encyclopaedia Britannica North America; Encyclopaedia Britannica International; Merriam-Webster, Inc.; Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation; Comptons MultiMedia Publishing Group, Inc.; Evelyn Wood, Inc.

Further Reading

Encyclopedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1963; Haase, Roald H., The Story of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1990; Parr, J., Low Tech Lives, Forbes, November 17, 1986.

Jonathan Martin