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Dobson's Encyclopaedia

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Title: Dobson's Encyclopaedia  
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Subject: Encyclopædia Britannica
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Dobson's Encyclopaedia

Dobson's Encyclopædia was the first encyclopedia published in the newly independent United States of America, by Thomas Dobson from 1789–1798.[1] "Encyclopædia" was the full title of the work, the word Dobson not appearing on the title page except at the bottom (see illustration). It was a reprint of the contemporary 3rd edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (published 1788–1797), although Dobson's Encyclopædia was a somewhat longer work in which a few articles were edited for a patriotic American audience. The term Britannica was dropped from the title, the dedication to King George III was replaced with a dedication to the readers, and sundry facts about American history, geography and peoples were added. Because the photocopying or stereotyping of entire pages had not yet been invented, the entire work had to be re-typeset, allowing changes to be made here and there. However, the work is largely a reprint of Britannica. The plates were re-engraved from the originals as accurately as possible, but some were changed. For example, the map of North America used in Britannica's 3rd edition was the same map they had used in their 1st and 2nd editions, and it was very out of date. Dobson's used a larger and much more detailed (and updated) map, as well as a slightly improved map of South America.

The 18-volume third edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica began to be published in 1788 in Scotland, and was well received. It was by far the best edition of the Britannica to date. (See History of the Encyclopædia Britannica for more details.) The third edition was completed in 1797, with a two-volume supplement added in 1801.

In this era, enterprising American printers were matching their British counterparts in quality and quantity, and severely undercutting them in price as well. A successful master printer, Dobson objected to a perceived British bias in the Britannica and resolved to re-edit the Britannica to be more fair. He completed his Encyclopædia in April 1798, a year after the original. Dobson's encyclopædia had 16,650 pages with 595 engraved copperplates; both numbers are slightly greater than their British counterparts. In support of Dobson's patriotic initiative, then-President George Washington subscribed to two sets of his first American encyclopædia, one of which now rests with most of the rest of George Washington's personal library in the Boston Athenæum.

Its retail price was five Pennsylvania dollars per volume, about 15% less than the price of Britannica in America, due to import tax on British books.[2] Purchasers included American political figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.[3] The original printing of 2,000 copies finally sold out in or before 1818, when another printing was made for Dobson by the firm of Budd and Bartram of Philadelphia. By the time of Dobson's death in 1823, however, it was outdated; it was eventually overshadowed by the first edition of Encyclopedia Americana (1829-1833).

Subscription sales

Dobson did not approve of door-to-door sales, which had been used by his contemporary, Parson Weems, to sell William Guthrie's New System of Modern Geography and Oliver Goldsmith's History of the earth and Animated Nature. The door-to-door approach also seemed impractical, given the Encyclopædia's price and the long printing time (nine years). Instead, Dobson conducted an all-out advertising blitz, unlike any before seen in North America, to secure subscriptions; his advertisements appeared in newspapers, on magazine wrappers, in spare book leaves, and in pamphlets distributed to all the major book-sellers of his day. Dobson also appealed strongly to the patriotic pride of the newly independent Americans; he used only American materials and craftspeople and his announcement of the first "American" encyclopedia was timed to agree with George Washington's selection as the first President under the new Constitution. His first advertisements appeared on 31 March 1789 in three newspapers: the Pennsylvania Mercury, the Pennsylvania Packet, and the Federal Gazette.


Like the Britannica, Dobson's Encyclopædia was published in weekly numbers, which could be then bound into volumes or half-volume parts. The price of each number was "one quarter of a dollar". The first weekly number was published on 2 January 1790, followed the next week by the second number. Dobson continued his regular printings until a fire destroyed his business and stock on an early Sunday morning, 8 September 1793; the heat of the fire was sufficient to melt much of his metal print parts. Undaunted, Dobson returned to printing his Encyclopædia within a month.

Editorial difficulties

Dobson encountered some editorial difficulties as well, most notably on the essay concerning Quakers in Volume 15, which roused some indignation in Philadelphia, the home of many Quakers. Dobson merely reprinted an offensive article from the Britannica, which had been written by George Gleig (soon to be Bishop of Brechin), without checking it for accuracy. A devout Anglican, Gleig allowed himself to be contemptuously biased against George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. Dobson met this challenge by meeting with the Quakers and printing a rebuttal essay in defense of George Fox's character. The Quaker's enlightened approaches to race relations and other social issues are often noted and praised throughout the Encyclopædia.

Comparison with the Britannica's 3rd edition

Most of Dobson's Encyclopædia is a copy of the 3rd edition of the Britannica. The chief exceptions can be found in the articles dealing with American geography, most notably Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, and American history, such as the surrender of the British in the American Revolution. A very detailed account of that war, in both Britannica and Dobson's, makes up roughly the second half of the article "America", found in Vol 1. In Britannica, it goes from page 574 to 618, in Dobson's from 575 to 626, making Dobson's account 7 pages longer. Interestingly, Volume 1 of Dobson's is re-paginated back to 619 after the article, to once again line up with Britannica.

In addition to Dobson himself, Jedidiah Morse, the father of American geography, made significant contributions; for example, he defended the status of women among the Native American peoples, which had been called "slavish" by the Britannica's editors, most likely James Tytler:


Morse also disputed the view of the Britannica that the skins and skulls of Indians are "thicker than the skins and skulls of many other nations of mankind".

It is likely that there were other contributors to Dobson's Encyclopædia, but their names are unknown.

The Supplement

Dobson began thinking about his supplement even before the Encyclopedia was finished. He began work on it before Britannica advertised their intensions of producing a supplement, and when the British supplement started being printed, Dobson had a good amount of additional material to include with it. His supplement, dated 1803, wound up being 3 volumes, to match and surpass the two-volume supplement published by the Britannica in 1801. The Supplement was more independent and more accurate than the main encyclopedia had been, but sales were relatively poor. One notable article is "Pneumatics", which correctly defends Count Rumford's conclusion that water is a relatively poor conductor of heat, which had been criticized by an important Britannica contributor, Dr. Thomas Thomson of Edinburgh.

The differences between the texts of Encyclopaedia Britannica and Dobson's Encyclopaedia are mostly found in the supplement. Britannica's 1803 supplement (second edition, the first edition being in 1801), was two volumes of 810 and 812 pages. Dobson's supplement was 704, 734, and 566 pages. This adds up to 1622 pages for Britannica and 2004 pages for Dobson's. Britannica's 1803 supplement has 50 plates, Dobson's has 53.

Inspection shows that almost all the added pages in Dobson's supplement involved American interests, such as expanded descriptions of the states, of New York City and Boston, with hundreds of added cities and locations, descriptions of Indian tribes and their locations and customs, great expansion of American political leaders, an expanded article on the first president, and an entirely new article for Benjamin Franklin.[4] Interestingly, Franklin has his own article in the 3rd edition of Britannica and is mentioned many times in various other articles, going back to the first edition, but has no article in the supplement. The article on Franklin in Dobson's supplement is 4 pages. Washington does not have his own article in Britannica's 3rd, but has a 4-page article in its supplement. Dobson's supplement copies these 4 pages and expands the article to 8 pages. Most interesting is the article in Dobson's supplement, "The United States of America," which is 30 pages long, and for which there is no corresponding article in Britannica's supplement.

The Supplement was not printed by Dobson, but by Budd and Bartram of Philadelphia.


Dobson's Encyclopædia encountered significant competition from his rival printer, Samuel F. Bradford of Philadelphia, who proposed in 1805 to reprint Abraham Rees' New Cyclopaedia with American amendments. The 44-volume British original first began to appear in London in January 1803, but was not completed until 1820; the 47-volume American reprint was not completed until 1822. Not only did the project drive Bradford bankrupt, it also drove his successor bankrupt, the firm of Murray, Draper, Fairman and Company. Dobson was vulnerable to competition due to two factors: his encyclopedia was beginning to be outdated, and it had relatively few biographies of Americans. Dobson and his son Judah eventually went out of business in 1822; Dobson himself died on 9 March 1823.

A more successful encyclopedia following Dobson's was the 13-volume Encyclopedia Americana, which was published 1829-1833 by Francis Lieber. The Encyclopedia Americana was based on Brockhaus' Conversations-Lexikon but added significant new material. Given the relative paucity of Dobson's additions to the Britannica, it seems fair to call the Americana the first truly American encyclopedia.

See also


Encyclopedic reference

  • Well-researched with exhaustive citations to primary sources, this is the authoritative source on all matters pertaining to Dobson's Encyclopædia.
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