Made in Edinburgh (on an upturned washtub)

The latest chapter in the story of the Encyclopaedia Britannica unfolded today when it was announced that the current edition would be the last to be published in printed form.

Here in Edinburgh we’re very proud of our city’s association with one of the world’s most famous reference works. The Reference Library holds a copy of the current print edition, as well as copies of previous editions of a work that was first published in this city in 1768.

The story of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is itself a long and interesting one, peopled by characters like the remarkable James Tytler (1752 – 1808).

Radical, aeronaut, author and publisher, Tytler left university aged fifteen and worked as a surgeon on a whaling ship before taking up the post of editor of the second edition of the Britannica in 1776.

Under Tytler ‘s editorship the encyclopaedia was greatly enlarged, and Tytler himself wrote hundreds of the entries on his washerwoman landlady’s upturned tub.

Another of Tytler’s passions was flight, and he was in fact the first Briton to make a successful ascent in a balloon. Rather than being seen as a pioneer however, Tytler was in fact viewed in a rather more comical light – due in part to some disastrous ballooning escapades including crashing in front of hundreds of spectators at Comely Gardens.

You can find out more about Tytler’s other exploits, including his arrest as a radical and emigration to America, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which, like Britannica, is available free online to anyone with an Edinburgh Libraries card.

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