The Sum of All Human Knowledge
December 6, 1768: First Encyclopedia Britannica
On this day in 1768 Encyclopedia Britannica began publishing the first print – otherwise known as “part I”. It was the brain child of Colin Macfarquhar, and Andrew Bell. The first volume would be completed in Edinburgh, Scotland by 1771.
The 3rd edition would become popular and also expand for the first time. The Encyclopedia would move to the US in 1901.
There have been people throughout history that have devoted themselves to reading the entire Britannica, taking anywhere from three to 22 years to do so. When Fat’h Ali became the Shah of Persia in 1797, he was given a set of the Britannica’s 3rd edition, which he read completely; after this feat, he extended his royal title to include “Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopædia Britannica”.
Writer George Bernard Shaw claimed to have read the complete 9th edition – except for the science articles and Richard Evelyn Byrd took the Britannica as reading material for his five month stay at the South Pole in 1934.
Topics are chosen in part by reference to the Propædia “Outline of Knowledge”. The bulk of the Britannica is devoted to geography (26%), biography (14%), biology and medicine (11%), literature (7%), physics and astronomy (6%), religion (5%), art (4%), Western philosophy (4%), and law (3%).
Britannica usually prints a new set of the tomes every two years, but 2010’s 32 volume set was its last after 242 years. Instead, the company will focus solely on its digital encyclopedia and education tools.
Britannica vs Wikipedia
A study published in Nature in 2005 found that both Wikipedia and Britannica were good references, with each getting a similarly small number of facts wrong.
Taking a look at the Abe Lincoln entry in Britannica finds that the piece is written by Richard N. Current, a historian who’s written several books about Lincoln (a fact you can learn on Wikipedia; Britannica offers only a two-line bio of Current). Britannica’s main claim to accuracy is it invites experts to write its entries, and then its small army of fact-checkers and editors make sure that everything is correct.
We are to trust Britannica’s entry on Lincoln because it’s written by a guy who really knows Lincoln . . . and to think of its entry on skateboarding as being on the up-and-up because Tony Hawk wrote it. Now I don’t think Tony Hawk wants to steer me wrong, but shouldn’t I be able to check his facts?
For instance, Richard Current says that Lincoln was born “in a backwoods cabin 3 miles south of Hodgenville, Kentucky.” How do I know that’s true? Unlike in Wikipedia, Britannica’s articles don’t include links to source material. You’re meant to believe what they say because it’s right there in the book (or now, online).
By comparison, when Wikipedia tells me about Lincoln’s birthplace, it cites its information with a source – Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald’s 1996 biography of Abe. Is Wikipedia wrong about Lincoln’s birth? I don’t know. But I know how to check – I can look at the biography it suggests, and I can check many of the rest of its assertions through its hundreds of footnotes.
Similarly, the free encyclopedia’s skateboarding article points out that commercial skateboards appeared in the late 1950s. But unlike Tony Hawk, Wikipedia cites as a source this About.com piece, which argues that “no one really knows who made the first board.”
Now, who’s right here, Tony Hawk or About.com? At the very least, the Wikipedia piece suggests there’s some controversy about the birth of skateboarding, a controversy that could lead me to do my own investigation of the primary sources. I needn’t just believe Tony Hawk because he’s Tony Hawk.
Excerpted from an article by:
Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the author of True Enough.