Each of its pages were packed with fascinating facts, the kind of “need-to-know” information that every home of a certain status in mid-18th century Scottish society had at their fingertips.

Such as the very succinct four-word definition of woman: “The female of man”. 
And, what must have been terrifying for anyone who dared to indulge in an evening puff of their pipe, a dire warning that excess use of tobacco caused neurodegeneration, “drying up the brain to a little black lump consisting of mere membranes”.

The first instalments of Encyclopædia Britannica arrived in Edinburgh homes exactly 250 years ago this week, offering essential, albeit certainly rather weighty, reading. For a start, the section on anatomy alone spanned an eye-watering 165 double-column pages and filled more than six issues. 

Its scientific approach to nature and medicine prompted some to brand the new book as the “gospel of Satan”, its graphic depictions of dissected female pelvises and foetuses in its articles on childbirth were so controversial that an enraged King George III demanded the offending pages be ripped from every copy.

But for those hardy Scots who stuck with it from A to Z, the result was a formidable wealth of knowledge, an essential three volume weapon in the armoury of the great minds of the Scottish Enlightenment, and an encyclopedia that would go on to become one of the best known of its kind, found in homes and classrooms across the world.

The 250th anniversary of Britannica’s publication is now set to be marked by a series of events organised by the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

These include a sell-out talk by Professor Stephen Brown of Trent University in Ontario, who plans to unravel the roots and spotlight the often very eccentric characters behind the launch of one of Scotland’s most extraordinary publications. 

It was Saturday, December 10, probably late in the day and in Stairs Close just off the Lawnmarket in Edinburgh’s Old Town, when the first copies of Encyclopædia Britannica made their way from the publishers’ offices into the eager hands of the capital’s society. 

It was the idea of printer Colin Macfarquhar, who driven by a determination to produce a book of knowledge by Scots and for Scots, had joined forces with the diminutive 4ft 6ins figure of engraver Andrew Bell.

Neither, according to Mr Brown, had any formal education to speak of – Macfarquhar had just been released from his apprenticeship, Bell was the son of a baker – but both had spotted a niche in the publishing market for a weighty tome that would offer the Scots in the age of enlightenment an up to date and informed source of global knowledge.

The pair engaged William Smellie, who had edited the Scots Magazine for five years and who had used Bell as an engraver.

However large parts of the first edition were – by Smellie’s own admission – an 18th century version of today’s “ctrl-C ctrl-V”, and simply chopped from other publications using a trusty pair of scissors, and pasted on to the pages, errors and all.

Perhaps to avoid the risk of the learned establishment of Edinburgh pouring scorn on their credentials as authors of an encyclopedia, the group referred to themselves simply as “A Society of Gentlemen in Scotland”.

The first edition was published in instalments between December 1768 and 1771, at a time when the dodo still thrived, freshly-cut onions were recorded in its pages as a cure for baldness and California described as located in the West Indies, “unknown whether it is an island or a peninsula”.

According to Mr Brown, Britannica was heavily promoted for its Scottishness. “It included many Scottish sources and had a long treatise on Scots Law,” he adds. The adverts also encouraged subscribers to be patriotic and purchase this first ever encyclopaedia by Scots.

“The three founders were not Jacobites. They were typical of the Edinburgh business and intellectual community who promoted a strong Scottish identity within a healthy Union. They recognised the benefits of peace to commerce. Thus the Britannica within the title.”

A novel early feature was Smellie’s inclusion of treatises, some of which, like anatomy left readers with an astonishing amount of content to consume and sparked complaints from some who simply couldn’t cope with the extreme verbosity. 

As a result, while the first volume covered just the first three letters of the alphabet, leaving the second two volumes to hurriedly handle the remaining 23.

“The illustrations amounted to 160 engravings and several thousand figures, all executed by Andrew Bell,” adds Mr Brown. “The most notorious were his engravings of a foetus in the womb in the treatise on midwifery. 

“They were copied from the other William Smellie’s book on midwifery aimed at medical specialist. But the Britannica was the first book intended for public consumption to include such graphic medical illustrations.”

Perhaps the adverse publicity and wrath of royalty helped. The first edition sold enough copies to enough to warrant an updated second edition.

However, a row between Smellie and the Duke of Buccleuch, a major subscriber, over biographical information sparked his resignation. 

Perhaps it was no surprise that the chore of writing the next volume would go to an equally unusual character, James Tytler, the first man to successfully fly a hot air balloon in Great Britain and whose personal fortunes had already careered from whaling ship surgeon to debtors’ prison and a love affair with the bottle. 

He penned 9,000 pages and increased the encyclopedia from three volumes to nine, mostly writing hunched over his washerwoman landlady’s upturned washtub and locked in his room by the publishers who feared he might escape.

Tytler was paid a pittance for his work, but supplemented his income by writing a guide to Edinburgh’s prostitutes which rated their looks, performance and teeth. 

Incredibly, 250 years later,  several first edition copies of the encyclopedia are still in circulation.

Mr Brown added: “There are 44 sets are currently listed in the English Short Title Catalogue in libraries around the world, and there are others in private hands.”