Britannica had first acquired a large mainframe computer in the 1960s. It had primarily been used to manage the company’s direct mail and installment sales activities, though it also did the usual accounting applications and managed the payroll and accounts receivable functions. In 1971, Britannica hired Patricia A. Wier to help manage computer systems and programming operations. Wier had been lured away from a computer management position at Playboy Magazine’s Chicago headquarters. A quick study, Wier was promoted to head Britannica’s computer operations within the same year.
Wier was determined to broaden the use of computers within the company, and before long Wier helped graft the in-house editorial system onto Britannica’s existing mainframe computer. This system was used to help produce the massive 15th Edition. It was not until the early 1980s, however, that Britannica moved to a stand- alone mainframe computer completely dedicated to editorial operations. At that time, all editorial and production work was put online, including page-makeup and indexing.
It was at this juncture that Wier was promoted to vice president of corporate planning and development. She was charged with developing or acquiring new products that would see Britannica into the future, particularly bearing in mind the new computer technologies that were coming to the fore. Soon she and editorial vice president Charles Van Doren began calling on various leading lights in the field of computer development to get ideas about the directions Britannica electronic products might take. Because Wier wanted to explore at a sophisticated level how the computer developments of the future might be put to use by a reference publisher such as Britannica, she traveled to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
MIT was then, as it is today, at the cutting edge of important computer developments. The people that she engaged at MIT included “artificial intelligence” guru Marvin Minsky at the MIT Media Lab. Minsky introduced her to a former student of his, Danny Hillis, by then at the supercomputer start up Thinking Machines. Both were intrigued with how computer technology might be applied to such an enormous and fascinating database as the Encyclopædia Britannica. Of particular interest to everyone Wier met was the dense indexing within the set that already existed, interconnecting as it did all parts of the database.
Wier recalls that when she met with Minsky at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts and entered the large casual room where their meeting was to take place, three grand pianos scattered around the room sounded the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as the door opened. Minsky had other gadgets like this in his home, all reflecting his never- ending fascination with technology and its uses, both playful and serious. Grand pianos seemed the order of the day among these leading east coast technologists.
When Minsky and Wier visited the home of the Sheryl Handler, a co-founder with MIT graduate Danny Hillis of Thinking Machines, a supercomputer manufacturer. Minsky sat down at her new Bösendorfer grand piano and expertly indulged his passion for magnificent music machines. Though all Wier’s Boston- based interlocutors were singular, none could fully compete with one of Handler’s achievements. She had appeared in a Dewars Scotch Whiskey advertising profile next to the quote, “My feminine instinct to shelter and nurture contributes to my professional perspectives.”
Sheryl Handler Dewars Ad
Wier also met briefly at this time with Nicholas Negroponte, director of the Lab. Wier and others were curious about how to use what was then called artificial intelligence to permit the recovery of pertinent electronic data in a more sophisticated manner than through key word searching alone.
During this period, Wier and Britannica USA president Peter Norton also met with Alan Kay to discuss how rapidly developing computer technology might impact an electronic encyclopedia.
At the time Kay was working with Atari to produce electronic games, but Wier recollects that he was fascinated with the content of Encyclopædia Britannica and came to Chicago to visit Britannica’s corporate headquarters to learn more.
His sneakers and jeans, while standard mode of attire for Silicon Valley, caused heads to turn and eyebrows to raise at then straight-laced Britannica Centre. The requirements for more formal business garb at Britannica and other offices in downtown Chicago didn’t disappear until well into the ’90s. Wier and Kay, who had his own associations with the MIT Media Lab, also brainstormed about someday using encyclopedic information in voice-controlled graphics on walls in the home.
In 1983, with her research complete, Wier proposed to Britannica’s board of directors that it embark on the creation of an interactive electronic encyclopedia. Wier, who retired in 1993 as president of Britannica USA, got an answer akin to the one given by the University of Chicago’s directors when they turned down Sears’ Britannica gift. Wier remembers she was told in no uncertain terms, “We sell books!”
Bill Bowe with William Benton’s daughter Louise Benton Wagner, Ezra Solomon, Peter Norton, Newton Minow and other Encyclopaedia Britannica directors 1992
At Atari’s Sunnyvale Research Laboratory, Kay consulted the next year on an encyclopedia research project sponsored by Atari, the National Science Foundation, and Hewlett-Packard. Joining Kay as a consultant on the prototype Encyclopedia Project was Charles Van Doren, recently retired from Encyclopædia Britannica.