Blackwood was born of humble parents in Edinburgh. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a firm of booksellers in Edinburgh, and he followed his calling also in Glasgow and London for several years. Returning to Edinburgh in 1804, he opened a shop in South Bridge Street for the sale of old, rare and curious books. He undertook the Scottish agency for John Murray and other London publishers, and gradually drifted into publishing on his own account, moving in 1816 to Princes Street. On 1 April 1817 the first number of the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine was published, which on its seventh number became Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. "Maga," as this magazine soon came to be called, was the organ of the Scottish Tory party, and round it gathered a host of able writers.
In 1829 he wrote to his son William in India telling him that he was moving from Princes Street to 45 George Street as George Street was "becoming more and more a place of business and the east end of Princes Street is now like Charring Cross, a mere place for coaches". His brother Thomas bought 43 and in 1830 Thomas Hamilton remodelled the entire frontage of the pair for the Blackwood Brothers. Thomas' shop operated as a silk merchant.
William Blackwood died in 1834 and is buried in an ornate vault in the lower western section of Old Calton Cemetery. He was succeeded by his two sons, Alexander and Robert, who added a London branch to the firm. In 1845 Alexander Blackwood died, and shortly afterwards Robert.
A younger brother, John Blackwood succeeded to the business; four years later he was joined by Major William Blackwood, who continued in the firm until his death in 1861. In 1862 the major's elder son, William Blackwood (born 1836), was taken into partnership. On the death of John Blackwood, William Blackwood junior was left in sole control of the business. With him were associated his nephews, George William and JH Blackwood, sons of Major George Blackwood, who was killed at Maiwand in 1880.
The last member of the Blackwood family to run the company was Douglas Blackwood. During World War II Blackwood was a fighter pilot and at the height of the Battle of Britain recalled looking down from 25,000 feet to see the firm's London office in Paternoster Row ablaze. Millions of books were lost in the fire and the destruction of Blackwood's base in the City of London marked the beginning of the firm's decline. He retired in 1976 and by 1980 the firm had amalgamated.
See Annals of a Publishing House; William Blackwood and his Sons ... (1897–1898), the first two volumes of which were written by Mrs Oliphant; the third, dealing with John Blackwood, by his daughter, Mrs Gerald Porter.
- "BLACKWOOD, William". Who's Who, 59: p. 164. 1907.
- Trevor Royle Obituary: Wing Cdr Douglas Blackwood The Independent, 7 March 1997
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- Finkelstein, David, The House of Blackwood: Author-Publisher Relations in the Victorian Era, Penn State Press, 2001 ISBN 0-271-02179-9
- Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, January, 1843 at Project Gutenberg
- Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, February, 1843 at Project Gutenberg
- Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, March, 1843 at Project Gutenberg
- Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, April 1843 at Project Gutenberg
- Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, May, 1843 at Project Gutenberg
- Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, June, 1843 at Project Gutenberg
- Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, January, 1844 at Project Gutenberg
- Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, April, 1844 at Project Gutenberg
- Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, July, 1844 at Project Gutenberg