Celebrate the Encyclopedia Britannica's 250th Birthday by Checking Out Its First Edition Online

Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Mario Tama/Getty Images

While those gold-embossed, multi-volume sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica were a feature of many an American childhood, the origins of the venerable reference work actually lie in Scotland. Two hundred and fifty years ago—on December 10, 1768—the first pages of the Britannica were published in Edinburgh. To celebrate the anniversary, the National Library of Scotland has put a rare first edition of the encyclopedia online.

The first edition was the brainchild of printer Colin Macfarquhar, engraver Andrew Bell, and the editor William Smellie. It was published in 100 weekly sections over three volumes (completed in 1771), but explicit engravings of midwifery scandalized some subscribers, and were ripped out on the orders of the Crown. The entries of the first edition—some of which ran to hundreds of pages—reflect the biases and preoccupations of their time: woman is defined as "the female of a man," while there are 39 pages devoted to horse diseases. Nevertheless, the work was a significant accomplishment that drew on at least 150 sources, from essays by famous philosophers to newspaper articles. It also featured 160 copperplate engravings by Bell.

The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica
The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

In a statement from the National Library of Scotland, Rare Books Curator Robert Betteridge said, "By the 20th century Britannica was a household name throughout the English-speaking world, and what is especially interesting about this publication was that it had a distinctly Scottish viewpoint. The first edition emphasized two themes—modern science and Scottish identity, including ground-breaking and controversial articles on anatomy and Scots Law."

The first edition (which includes those ripped-out midwifery pages) will appear as part of an exhibit on the Scottish Enlightenment at the National Library of Scotland this summer. For now, you can view all three volumes of the first edition, from "A—the name of several rivers" to Zygophyllum, a genus in botany—online here.

[h/t American Libraries]

Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

iStock
iStock

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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Virginia Woolf Calls D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce 'Overrated' in Newly Unearthed 1923 Survey

James Joyce
James Joyce
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Don’t feel too bad if you’ve ever struggled to get through James Joyce’s Ulysses or one of D.H. Lawrence’s long-winded books. Virginia Woolf and several other well-respected writers of the 20th century had a few choice words for Joyce and Lawrence, labeling them the "most overrated" English writers in a recently rediscovered 1923 survey.

As Smithsonian reports, these thoughts were recorded in a journal that was passed around British literary circles that included Woolf and nine other writers in the early 20th century. Within the “literary burn book,” as Vox dubbed it, writers recorded their answers to a 39-question survey about their thoughts on popular writers of the time, both living and dead. For example, they were asked to choose the greatest literary genius of all time, as well as the author most likely to be read in 25 years’ time. (In response to the latter question, author and poet Hilaire Belloc simply answered, “Me.”)

Titled Really and Truly: A Book of Literary Confessions, the book eventually ended up in novelist Margaret Kennedy’s possession. It was recently rediscovered by her grandson, William Mackesy, who, along with his cousin, is one of the literary executors of Kennedy's estate.

“Within were pages of printed questions with 10 sets of handwritten answers dated between 1923 and 1927,” Mackesy explained in The Independent. “Then the names came into focus and our eyes popped. Here were Rose Macaulay, Rebecca West, Hilaire Belloc, Stella Benson—and Virginia Woolf. And our granny.” It's unclear who originally wrote the survey.

In addition to taking jabs at Lawrence and Joyce, one unnamed respondent called T.S. Eliot the worst living English poet as well as the worst living literary critic. In response to a prompt to name the dead author whose character they most disliked, the participants name-dropped Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, George Meredith, Marcel Proust, and Lord Byron. Woolf, for her part, answered, “I like all dead men of letters.” (If the respondents had known about the misdeeds of Charles Dickens, he may have ended up on the list, as well.)

“It is interesting how perceptions change, especially how little mention there is of now-most-celebrated writers from that era,” Mackesy notes. This little activity wasn’t entirely petty, though. Shakespeare, unsurprisingly, won the most votes for greatest literary genius. Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, received one vote.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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