Dr. Stanley Frank, Executive Vice President, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Stanley FrankThus, from the beginning, the novel idea of developing an architecture based upon multiple search paths to related information was central to the product. Also fundamental to the design were reciprocal hyperlinks between related data contained in other search paths. With a product that was easy to use and that could easily facilitate different styles of learning, the group felt they were building a blockbuster, both for the network market within schools, as well as for the stand- alone consumer market.

This combination of ESC’s computer networking programing expertise together with Britannica’s skilled encyclopedists was a unique combination for the times. And building an electronic database that went beyond text to include sound, animation, video and maps, could never have been accomplished without the millions of dollars that was invested by Britannica both before and during the development of the Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia product. This unusual combination of human resources, coupled with a subset of Britannica’s rich editorial content, turned out to be the secret sauce needed to invent and build the software needed to bring a highly complex digital work to life. If anyone doubts the difficulty of pulling this task off, for a parallel they need only look at the decades long and costly failure of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu effort to actually produce a useful product this ambitious that actually worked.

Britannica released a network version for schools of Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia in fall 1989 at a press conference at the New York Academy of Science. The news media was out in force, recognizing the product as potentially noteworthy. Britannica’s executive vice president, Dr. Stanley Frank, who had overseen the development process, demonstrated the Compton’s CD-ROM for a national television audience through a live presentation that reached the nation on ABC’s Good Morning America television show.

The consumer version of Compton’s CD-ROM was published shortly after in March 1990 at a price of $895. Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia, on a single CD-ROM disc, contained an amazing 13 million words, 7,000 images and numerous movies, animations and sound clips.