Science in the 19th Century Periodical

The Edinburgh Review, 1802–1929


Volume 1, 1802–03


Sydney Smith and Francis Jeffrey, October 1802–April 1803


Archibald Constable and Co., 1802–26


David Willison, 1802–03+


5s. (1802)


Demy 8to.


252–266 (1802/3)




2500 (1803)


All volumes: Contents, Index


Leeds University Library


Edinburgh Review, 1 (1802), 1.  Reproduced by kind permission of Leeds University Library.

    The founding of the Edinburgh Review by Sydney Smith (1771–1845), Francis Horner (1778–1817), and Francis Jeffrey (1773–1850), almost it seems on a whim, is a story that has often been told. In the late winter of 1801–02, the English cleric and private tutor, Smith, suggested to the two struggling Scots lawyers that they found a review. Having taken others into their confidence, notably another young lawyer, Henry Brougham (1778–1868), they approached the young Edinburgh publisher Archibald Constable (1774–1827), and, receiving a favourable response, they had the new review in print by October of 1802. The early and continuing success of the Edinburgh Review owed much to the youthful exuberance of these talented young Whigs, isolated as they were by the power structures of Edinburgh's Tory hegemony, but brimful of ideas and with time on their hands. As Marilyn Butler has observed, if one were to seek to account for the later 'supremacy' of the journal by a single characteristic, it would be 'arrogance' (Butler 1993, p. 131).

    Expressive of its founders' youthful self-assurance, the Edinburgh broke the mould of review journalism in several ways. First of all, where previous review journals had aimed at comprehensiveness, the new review was to be selective. The advertisement which accompanied the first number confidently declared that it formed no part of the editors' object 'to take notice of every production that issues from the Press'. They wished their journal, they asserted, 'to be distinguished, rather for the selection, than for the number of its articles', and they positively declined 'any attempt at exhibiting a complete view of modern literature', preferring instead to confine themselves mostly 'to works that either have attained, or deserve a certain portion of celebrity' (vol. 1, p. [iii]). Such an approach would work well, they continued, if the journal were to appear at quarterly intervals, a plan which would allow the editors sometimes to be guided in their choice by 'public opinion' (p. [iv]). Thus, in place of a monthly review of around 120 pages, carrying between forty and eighty reviews, the Edinburgh upstarts offered a quarterly review of over twice the length, carrying only twenty-nine reviews. Their advertisement indeed warned readers that the reviews would sometimes be longer than was usual in such publications, and the average length of reviews gradually increased over succeeding numbers.

    What, then, were the selections which the young reviewers made? Notable by their relative absence were types of books particularly associated with the older reviews, including literary works, classical scholarship, theology, and the practical arts. The interests of the Edinburgh coterie lay elsewhere. The four core founders, as well as other Edinburgh associates, had all been members of the Academy of Physics, a short-lived society founded in 1797 to investigate 'nature, the laws by which her phenomena are regulated, and the history of opinions concerning these laws' (quoted in Clive 1957, p. 21). Brougham in particular had established a scientific reputation for himself, with three papers read before the Royal Society of London before he was twenty (Cantor 1975, p. 112). Not surprisingly, therefore, the new review gave significant space to the natural sciences. In addition, they had imbibed from the Whig professor of Moral Philosophy, Dugald Stewart, an interest in both moral philosophy and political economy, subjects which were also highly favoured by the review.

    It was not, however, merely the choice of books for review that gave the new journal its immediate appeal. Giving themselves the space in which to do so, the young projectors also gave themselves the license to favour the public with their decided opinions on the books they reviewed. Where the existing reviews had often employed hack writers to produce synopses of new works, the Edinburgh's gentlemanly contributors delivered their opinions on the books under review in colourful and forthright terms. Sometimes it was the review's Whig politics that gave these opinions piquancy, but much more generally reviewers were encouraged to develop an engagingly personal approach. It was the lively, witty, and frankly cocksure style of the Edinburgh's reviews that rapidly gained the journal a public. Indeed, with fifteen of the twenty-nine reviews of the first number 'adversely critical', Jeffrey and Horner felt obliged in the second to show that they could praise as well as criticize (Clive 1957, pp. 37, 40).

    To begin with, the editorship of the journal was largely in the hands of Sydney Smith and Francis Jeffrey, but after the third issue Constable agreed, at Smith's prompting, to formalize Jeffrey's position as editor, paying him £50 per issue. Constable also offered contributors remuneration at the unprecedentedly high rate of ten guineas per sheet, which allowed the review to command writers of real talent (Clive 1957, p. 33). Nevertheless, almost half of the review in its first twenty-three years was written by Brougham, Jeffrey, and Smith (Houghton 1966–89, 1: 419). The Edinburgh continued to rise in prestige and circulation over these years, possibly reaching its apogee in the 1810s, when its circulation attained an extraordinary 13,000. Subsequently, however, it continued to be a key element in British culture, and science continued to feature significantly (Yeo 1993, pp. 81–82).

Notes on Indexing

    The indexing offered here of the first volume of the Edinburgh Review provides a snapshot of the journal at its inception. While a significant number of the publications reviewed were scientific, the interests of the reviewers, and the breadth of their intellectual scope, means that in fact most of the reviews contain some scientific references of interest and are consequently included in the index. The attribution of authors is based on the attributions given in the Wellesley Index.


    Butler, Marilyn 1993. 'Culture's Medium: The Role of the Review', in The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism, ed. by Stuart Curran, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 120–47.

    Cantor, Geoffrey 1975. 'The Academy of Physics at Edinburgh, 1797–1800', Social Studies of Science, 5, 109–34.

    Clive, John 1957. Scotch Reviewers: The 'Edinburgh Review', 1802–1815, London: Faber and Faber.

    Demata, Massimiliano 2002. British Romanticism and the 'Edinburgh Review': Bicentenary Essays, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Houghton, Walter E., et al., eds. 1966–89. The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals 1824-1900, 5 vols, Toronto: University of Toronto Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Spurgeon, Dickie A. 1986. 'The Edinburgh Review', in British Literary Magazines: The Romantic Age, 1789–1836, ed. by Alvin Sullivan, Westport CT and London: Greenwood Press, 139–44.

    Yeo, Richard 1993. Defining Science: William Whewell, Natural Knowledge, and Public Debate in Early Victorian Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jonathan R. Topham (No. 1) and Fern Elsdon-Baker (No. 2)