June 24

To Crochallan came
The old cock’d hat, the grey surtout, the same;
His bristling beard just rising in its might,
‘Twas four long nights and days to shaving night;
His uncurl’d grizzly locks, wild staring, thatch’d
A head, for thought profound and clear, unmatch’d;
Yet though his caustic wit was biting, rude,
His heart was warm, benevolent, and good.

This poetical sketch was written by the poet Robert Burns about his friend, compositor William Smellie, who died this day in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1795. Noted for his learning even in a city that was then beginning its reputation as an intellectual center, Smellie is known to have written almost all of the entire first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Born about 1740, William Smellie had been apprenticed at twelve years of age to a maker of whalebone stays for women’s corsets, but the boy had different ideas and bound himself to a printer instead. He was most fortunate in selecting the establishment of Hamilton, Balfour, and Neal, then printers to Edinburgh University. This official connection allowed the boy to attend certain courses at the University, a privilege of which he immediately took advantage, spending all of his free time in studies. Within five years he had so progressed that he was made corrector of the press, an exceedingly responsible position for such a young man, particularly in an office engaged in scholarly printing for a university.

At eighteen years of age Smellie produced an edition of Terence, entirely set and corrected by himself. It won for his master a prize offered by the Edinburgh Philosophical Society for the best edition of a Latin classic. At nineteen he completed his apprenticeship and went to work as proofreader to the firm of Murray and Cochrane, editing for that firm the Scots Magazine. At the same period he edited a Hebrew grammar, instructing himself in that language in order that he might take on the responsibility.

In 1868 Smellie was approached by Andrew Bell, known in Edinburgh primarily for an ability to engrave dogs’ collars, and Colin Macfarquhar, a printer, with an idea of writing and printing an encyclopedia. The three men reached an agreement which was substantiated by a letter which Bell wrote to Smellie:

“Sir, as we are engaged in publishing a Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences; and as you have informed us that there are fifteen capital sciences which you will undertake for, and write up the subdivisions and detached parts of these to conform to your plan, and likewise to prepare the whole work for the press etc. etc; we hereby agree to allow you £200 for your trouble.”

The work was published over the next three years in 2,659 pages, most of which were probably written by Smellie. He subsequently refused to edit a second edition of the Britannica because of a disagreement with the sponsors.

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