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22 November 1999

From Anchor Close to cyberspace

New Statesman Scotland - The Encyclopaedia Britannica is now free on the Internet.

By Peter Clarke

The Internet wiped away another landmark this month. The Encyclopaedia Britannica ceased to be a series of intimidating, leather-bound volumes on the bookshelf. It became an online facility. What had cost £1,200 to buy as books is to be absolutely free as an address in cyberspace.

From now on, Britannica’s unmatched range of knowledge can be accessed by clicking on your keyboard. It is free to you and me, but the money to pay for the service will come from advertisers and sponsors. All you need to do is type in www. to surf a precis of all the knowledge accumulated to date.

It is all a huge gamble for Britannica, which says that the Internet is advancing so rapidly that it had barely any alternative. When Microsoft began giving away its Encarta encyclopaedia as a CD-Rom with its computers, Britannica had to hit back. Britannica’s own CD-Rom was regarded as technically accomplished, but too expensive while its rivals offered free data.

On the evidence of the first few days of being a free Internet portal, Britannica has made the right move. It has averaged ten million hits a day. Perhaps that will ease off once the novelty has gone, but the company reckons if any of the hundreds of millions of net folk want to check a fact they will click into its site first. Such is the inherent power of the brand.

All the world’s top salesmen are graduates of the Britannica school of hard- selling techniques. Its best line was to hit parents in terms of their children’s education. With the depth of scholarship to hand in the sitting-room, what pupil would not flourish? For some it worked. Britannica is acknowledged by several Nobel prize-winners as the key that unlocked their imaginations.

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I feel the founders of the great encyclopaedia would be pleased with the evolution to an Internet site. Few appreciate that the great publishing adventure started in a close off Edinburgh’s High Street. It was conceived by an engraver, Andrew Bell, and a printer, Colin MacFarquhar.

They appointed William Smellie to execute and edit it. The first edition began to appear in weekly numbers, price 6d, in December 1768. The whole enterprise was completed by 1771, in three volumes, and it totalled 2,659 pages.

Edinburgh does not celebrate its world-famous venture. There is a rusty plaque, seven feet above ground in Anchor Close, halfway up the Royal Mile, which says that this is where the story started. And that seems to be all. It ought, at the very least, to be a cyber-cafe where visitors can surf the encyclopaedia’s raft of information while sipping their refreshments. Any other European city would have milked such an illustrious connection. Oblivious, we pass by the dark and otherwise unremarkable mouth of the close.

William Smellie exhibited some of the qualities we regard as quintessentially Scottish. He was self-taught. The son of a stone mason, he bluffed his way to sit in on Edinburgh University classes, although he was not a member of the college. But nonetheless, he bested his more legitimate fellow students and won a prize for the best Latin text. Having made something of a name for himself as a scholar, he was offered £200 by Bell and MacFarquhar to write the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Smellie also helped to found the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. It survives as our most distinguished scholarly body.

Robert Burns enjoyed drinking with Smellie. He wrote a brief portrait of the man, describing him as gifted with

A head for thought profound and clear, unmatched,
And, though his caustic wit was biting rude,
His heart was warm, benevolent and good.

Smellie’s gravestone lies untended in Greyfriars Kirkyard. In any other city it would be a much-visited shrine.

His creation has moved on. Bought by several owners through the generations, it was acquired by the University of Chicago Press and owned and produced by them for many years. I fear its foreign owners saw no point in celebrating its Edinburgh origins, but we should do so ourselves. The company has since been purchased by a Swiss entrepreneur, Jacob Safra. Perhaps he will take a different view.

While heralding a new era, the arrival of the cyber-Britannica does not mean the end of the heavy tomes. The 16th edition , in 40 volumes, will be available from 2001, but the company is surely correct to see its future revenues from millions of surfers wanting to seek out obscure facts.

It was a staggering performance by Smellie to craft the bulk of the original encyclopaedia by himself. Today, no single individual could entertain such an undertaking. The volume of our knowledge has exploded. Now teams of scholars select and sift and edit the offering of some of the great experts around the globe. It has been a splendid adventure.

And to commemorate it, Edinburgh should ditch Anchor Close and rename it Britannica Close.