Scottish engraver Andrew Bell co-founded and co-wrote the first installment of what would become the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica today in 1768. Now WE know em


Andrew Bell was born in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, in 1726. His father was a baker and he grew up with little or no formal education until he became an apprentice to engraver Richard Cooper.

His apprentice work consisted of engraving crests, names, etc. on dog collars.

Bell was only 4 foot 6 inches tall, had crooked legs and an enormous nose that he would sometimes augment with an even larger paper-mache version whenever he felft someone was staring at his natural nose.

This colorful Scot, despite his small stature, deliberately rode the tallest horse available in Edinburgh, dismounting via a ladder to cheers of onlookers.

Bell was as determined at his work, and went on to become a fine engraver and printer in his own right.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Andrew Bell and Scottish bookseller Colin Macfarquhar, members of a Society of Gentlemen in Scotland, wanted to create an excellent educational English language reference book in reaction to the 1751 French publication of Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, which had in turn been inspired by the 1728 publication of Chambers’s Cyclopaedia.

They decided on the name Encyclopaedia Britannica; or, A Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, compiled upon a New Plan. ‘In which the different Sciences and Arts are digefted into distinct Treatises or Systems; and The various Technical Terms are explained as they occur in the order of the Alphabet.’


Title page of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

Title page of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

Encyclopaedia Britannica was Latin for “British Encyclopaedia.”

In 1768, Bell and Macfarquhar hired William Smellie as editor and wrote the first of 100 installments (”numbers”) on December 6, 1768. These installments were compiled in 1771 into three volumes and printed as the first original set of Encyclopaedia Britannica complete with 160 copperplate illustrations by Andrew Bell.


Andrew Bell's copperplate of a first rate ship-of-war from the First Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica - "undoubtedly the noblest machine that ever was invented"

Andrew Bell’s copperplate of a first rate ship-of-war from the First Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica – “undoubtedly the noblest machine that ever was invented”

It was a masterful composition although, later by Smellie’s own admission, they borrowed liberally from many authors of their day, such as Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson.

Nevertheless, the first edition of the Britannica contained gross inaccuracies and fanciful speculations; for example, it stated that excess use of tobacco could cause neurodegeneration, “drying up the brain to a little black lump consisting of mere membranes”.

Still, they strove to make Britannica as usable as possible, stating that;

“utility ought to be the principal intention of every publication. Wherever this intention does not plainly appear, neither the books nor their authors have the smallest claim to the approbation of mankind”.

Editor Smellie entertained strong opinions; for example, he defined farriery as “the art of curing the diseases of horses. The practice of this useful art has been hitherto almost entirely confined to a set of men who are totally ignorant of anatomy, and the general principles of medicine.”

Although possessed of wide knowledge, editor Smellie was not an expert in all matters; for example, his article on “Woman” has but four words: “the female of man.”

Despite its incompleteness and inaccuracies, Encyclopaedia Britannica’s vivid prose and easy navigation of the first edition led to strong demand for a second edition.

It has also been speculated that some of the prurient engravings by Andrew Bell that included three full pages of anatomically accurate depictions of dissected female pelvises and fetuses in the womb for the midwifery article (later censored by King George III who commanded that the pages be ripped from every copy) may also have contributed to the success of the first edition.

William Smellie did not participate in the ten volume second edition of Britannica, because he objected to the inclusion of biographical articles in an encyclopedia dedicated to the arts and sciences. The second edition included 340 copperplate illustrations by Bell.

After Macfarquhar died in 1793, Bell bought out his heirs and became sole owner of the Britannica.

Britannica went on to expand to a 20 volume fourth edition beginning in 1801 that included 531 illustrations by Andrew Bell until his own death in 1809.

Now WE know em


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