For more than 2,000 years encyclopaedias have existed as summaries of extant scholarship in forms comprehensible to their readers. The word encyclopaedia is derived from the Greek enkyklios paideia, “general education,” and it at first meant a circle or a complete system of learning. Earlier encyclopaedias—save for Denis de Coëtlogon’s An Universal History of Arts and Sciences(1745)—had not given systematic instruction on major subjects at all, either because they aimed at dealing with such subjects in a more general way (as in the Encyclopédie) or because articles on such subjects used their space chiefly in explanations of the technical terms involved. It was thus intended to satisfy two kinds of readers simultaneously: those wishing to study a subject seriously, who would work their way through the treatises; and those in search of quick reference material, who could instantly turn to what they wanted in its alphabetical order.
The first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was published and printed in Edinburgh for the engraver Andrew Bell and the printer Colin Macfarquhar by “a society of gentlemen in Scotland” and was sold by Macfarquhar at his printing office on Nicolson Street. The work was issued from December 1768 to 1771 with double-columned pages. The parts were bound in three stout quarto volumes of some 2,500 pages, with 160 copperplate engravings by Bell, and dated 1771. The title page begins as follows: “Encyclopædia Britannica; or, a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, compiled upon a new plan.” The work could not compete in bulk with the 68 volumes of Johann Heinrich Zedler’s Universal Lexicon or with the French Encyclopédie, whose 17 volumes of text had recently been completed. But it did challenge comparison with all previous dictionaries of arts and sciences, large or small, because of its new plan.
After 244 years of publication, in 2012 Encyclopedia Britannica decided to stop production of its iconic multi-volume print edition encyclopedias. The 2010 edition 32-volume 129-pound set was the last printed version. Britannica’s decision to concentrate its attention on its digital encyclopedia and on coming up with numerous education tools such as mobile applications was part of its natural evolution.