Who would have guessed that at the end of the 20th Century it would be a company founded in Scotland in 1768 that would invent a key part of the mechanics that would let people intuitively navigate the electronic flood of text, sound and images soon to drench the planet from the internet?
In 1989, 221 years after the company’s founding in Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment, Chicago-based Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., publisher of its eponymous Encyclopædia Britannica reference work, had not only solved this puzzle for the first time, but it was also issued a patent for it. While it may be incongruous that a legacy reference print publisher would be the party to make the discovery, this is exactly what happened.
Normal patents on inventions have a revenue producing life of 20 years. The patents Britannica filed for in 1989 were issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1993, but they were unusual in that they never earned a nickel. Indeed, in 2015, after years of litigation in multiple court venues, they were finally found to have been improperly issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in 2011 because of a technical error in the original filing papers. The technical defects meant that the courts never got to a detailed ruling on whether then commonplace GPS navigation systems infringed the patents covering Britannica’s invention.
The technical lapse meant that the court never got to a detailed ruling on whether then commonplace GPS navigation systems infringed the patents covering Britannica’s invention. When Britannica later sued its outside patent law firm for legal malpractice for committing the technical error, another court denied its claim saying that the patent shouldn’t have been issued by the Patent Office in the first place, and therefore, Britannica couldn’t have been hurt by the law firm’s mistake.
Though Encyclopaedia Britannica never benefited financially from the extraordinary human/machine interface it had been the first to build, it had reason to be proud of its fundamental achievement.
The public filing of its patent application had provided the basic roadmap for others to follow in developing may other software applications. The Britannica human/machine interface provided for the first time seamless navigational paths into and through complex databases of mixed media including, text, graphics, maps, videos and audio elements that even a nine-year old could master.
Britannica’s landmark invention has partly to do with the evolution of the personal computer in the mid-1980s. But it also has to do with a small group of encyclopedists who had been struggling for many years before to define what an electronic encyclopedia would look like. The culmination of their work happened to coincide with the coming of age of the personal computer in the nascent consumer market.
This fortuitous combination produced a remarkable cultural breakthrough. It meant that for the first time, children, as well as adults, could easily and quickly access and navigate complex and media-rich stores of digital information. It also created a plumbing roadmap for the software design that in later years would prove essential in making user friendly such diverse applications as automobile GPS navigation systems and websites.
Four pioneers in the development of computer interfaces stand out: Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart, and Alan Kay. Each of these four individuals made exceptional contributions to the developing field how humans interact with machines and each helped set the stage for Encyclopaedia Britannica’s unique invention in the 1980s. Two of these four individuals, Bush and Kay, even directly applied their thinking to the problem of building an electronic encyclopedia.