Wednesday, October 13, 2010

ISBN interesting

William Henry Smith was a very interesting man. In fact, both W H Smiths were interesting. Not only did they create the world’s very first store chain, they also gave us the ISBN code used to uniquely identify any book. One of them also inspired one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most endearing characters.

Henry Walton Smith and his wife Anna (nee Eastaugh) had created a successful news vendor business in 1792 and, by 1812, it was worth over a £1000. Upon Henry’s death, the business passed to his son William Henry (1782-1865). In 1846, William’s son – also called William Henry (1825-1891) – became a partner and the store was re-branded as W H Smith & Son. Both Smiths were innovators and saw the potential for sales in recent growth in the national railway network. They opened their first newspaper shop at Euston station, London in 1848. Within just a few years, they had shops at most major train stations across the UK – the first store chain.

The younger W H Smith entered the world of politics in 1868 becoming the Conservative MP for Westminster. He swiftly rose to become Treasury Minister in Benjamin Disraeli’s parliament and, in 1877, First Lord of the Admiralty despite having no military or seafaring experience. It is firmly believed that he was the model for Sir Joseph Porter, the ‘Ruler of the Queen’s Navy’ in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera HMS Pinafore and he quickly gained the nickname of ‘Pinafore Smith’. Smith Jnr also popularised the idea that Shakespeare’s plays were actually authored by Francis Bacon and wrote on the subject.*

The W H Smith chain has since gone on to absorb many other High Street brands including Our Price records and, in 1998, one of its main rivals, John Menzies. John Menzies (1808-1879) was a Scottish bookseller who opened his first store in Edinburgh in 1833. He was the first bookseller to sell Charles Dickens’ novels in Scotland and was a friend of the man himself. The company soon grew and filled the same position in Scotland as W H Smith’s bookshops had done in England. The name ‘Menzies’ is traditionally pronounced as ‘ming-iss’ and the Menzies company, now involved in distribution and aviation rather than retail, provides this handy limerick on their website to explain how to say it:

‘A lively young damsel named Menzies
Inquired: "Do you know what this thenzies?"
Her aunt, with a gasp,
Replied: "It's a wasp,
And you're holding the end where the stenzies”.’


Favourite W H Smith fact? The company was forced to apologise in 2009 when they featured a book about incestuous cellar rapist Josef Fritzl in their Father's Day promotion ‘Top 50 Books for Dad’.

As for the ISBN, this came about when the W H Smith company went into partnership with the American Doubleday company to create the largest book sellers of the day, Book Club Associates (BCA). To keep track of stock, they asked Gordon Foster, professor of Statistics at Trinity College, Dublin, to create a cataloguing system. He invented a nine-digit code for uniquely referencing books, which was called Standard Book Numbering or SBN.

In 1970 the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), with the help of the British Standards Institute (BSI), added in a group prefix – denoting country, area or language – to create the ten-digit International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Then, in 2005, a new ISBN 13, appeared. From 1st of January 2007 onwards, all published books have been allocated an ISBN 13.

My favourite fact about the ISBN? There are 628,000 allocated publisher prefixes. These are listed in their own book ... which in turn has its own ISBN.

*Smith, W. H (1856) Letter to Francis Egerton, Lord Ellesmere: Was Lord Bacon the author of Shakespeare's plays? (William Skeffington) and Smith, W. H. (1857) Bacon and Shakespeare: An Inquiry Touching Players, Playhouses, and Play-writers in the Days of Elizabeth (John Russell Smith)

Sources: Quercus Books Blog and other sources.

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