Harold Kester, SmarTrieve, and Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia

After further analyzing the potential market for such a work, Stanley Frank, in charge of development by then, decided in 1988 to partner in its development with Education Systems Corporation of San Diego, California. ESC had expertise in software development through building networked educational products for the school market. ESC chose as its text search engine subcontractor, the Del Mar Group. Del Mar was a Solana Beach, California venture capital startup, with funding from Japanese computer maker Fujitsu.

Del Mar’s chief scientist, Harold Kester, had already been building CD- ROM reference publications, though not for the consumer market. Importantly, Kester was also a student of the work of Gerald Salton at Cornell University. Salton had been doing pioneering research into the mathematical principles underlying automatic text retrieval. As Greg Bestik, ESC’s head of development, Kester, and Britannica’s editors and software engineers got together to plan the design of what became Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia, they had one clear instruction from Britannica’s management: Britannica was ready to invest millions of dollars in the product’s development, but it must publish a revolutionary offering that would be a clear breakthrough in simplifying a user’s interaction with computers.

This would not be a text-only product like Groliers. The depth of Britannica’s vast holdings of reference media in film, pictures, animations, and sound would all be made available for close integration with the Compton’s encyclopedic text. Kester’s great contribution to this enterprise was to produce a natural language search engine that would help permit the prototypical nine-year-old to easily search the entire database for articles of interest. Instead of expecting a nine-year- old to master the intricacies of Boolean logic in constructing search queries (“Sky” AND “Blue”), Britannica’s nine- year-old needed only to type in the search box “Why is the sky blue?” That would be enough to for Del Mar’s “SmarTriev” search engine to take the user to the answer.

interactive kiosks in bookstores shortly after its organization in 1984. That led it into becoming one of the first CD-ROM publishers the next year. It published the fifth CD-ROM in the United States in 1985, a prototype of a product intended for bookstores that would permit consumers to interact with a database and be guided to titles of interest. Its SmarTriev search system was licensed to other CD-ROM developers, and, in 1986, Del Mar briefly had the largest installed base of CD-ROMs in the country.

Informed by Gerald Salton’s earlier work, SmarTriev’s natural language search and retrieval system went far beyond the usual database search engines of its day.

Duly impressed, Britannica purchased SmarTriev and hired Kester as soon as the networked version of Compton’s product was complete.

When Britannica and ESC signed their co-development agreement in April 1988, the Del Mar Group dived in to help with the preparation of the design document. This was completed in July 1988. It set forth in elaborate detail the architecture of the Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia that would be published in the new CD- ROM format in the fall of the following year. The design document was very much a collaborative one.

Kester, Harold and Cauz, Jorge in Seoul, South Korea 1998

Harold Kester, VP Technology with Jorge Cauz, EB President, in Seoul, South Korea 1998

ESC had talented computer programmers and educational experts in San Diego and Austin, Texas sites. Harold Kester and his search engine group worked from Solana Beach, California, and the Britannica editors and software experts were in Chicago and San Francisco.

During development, between 40 and 80 individuals were active at any given time in working to bring the design document to life as a fully functioning product. This would be no prototype or demonstration vehicle for show and tell at a futurists’ conference. They were about inventing and building the real thing. Those on the design team with a background in educational psychology were sensitive to the fact that children learned in different ways. They pressed home the desirability of having different ways, both textual and graphical, for users to access the same information.