The Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is unquestionably an impressive thing. Even the India paper printing – the one I am happy to possess – demands an impressive five feet of bookshelf space to accommodate its forty-four million words in twenty-nine volumes. And sheer size is not its only attribute. First published over a hundred years ago, the great Eleventh continues to have a life not only on paper but also on the internet, where it may be consulted for free. While it doesn’t explain everything, it goes a very long way towards explaining a large proportion of what was of interest to an educated Briton in 1910 – and for a good while afterwards.
Just how this amazing compendium of scholarship and fact was assembled ought to make a very good story. Like the dramatis personae of Simon Winchester’s engaging book on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Professor and the Madman, the (mostly) men who compiled the Britannica included