Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia Makes a Splash

Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia (1985)The media again took notice. Said Newsweek of the breakthrough computer interface:

“Computers aren’t just smart typewriters and zippy number crunchers anymore. . . Yet so far hype has outstripped hopes in the growing collection of multimedia programs. Like dazzling Hollywood flops, most have turned out to be long on technology, but short on substance. Until Compton’s. . . Just getting that much information on a disc is impressive enough. Yet the beauty of Compton’s is in the links – everything is woven together so the user can quickly move between related bits of information. Thanks to ingenious design, the program is so simple that, literally, a child can use it… Hit a difficult word? A click will bring up the definition – and if your PC has sound capability, the machine will even pronounce it for you. Whetted appetites: A staff of 80 writers, editors, designers and programmers worked for two years to bring the product to market.”

The effect on people experiencing Compton’s for the first time could be stunning. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, like his political patron saint Hubert Humphrey before him, served on the Encyclopædia Britannica board of directors.  Shortly after the Compton’s product was released, I escorted Mondale to see the newly developed product with other directors at the Oak Brook Shopping Mall outside Chicago. He read with interest his own biographical entry reflecting his service as Vice President. After looking with less interest at the text of the entry on Richard Nixon, he got up from the keyboard and turned to leave. Seeing he had ignored the sound button on the entry, I quickly clicked on the audio icon in the Nixon article. When the computer speakers boomed Nixon’s disembodied voice (“Well, I’m not a crook!”),

Mondale turned around, frozen in amazement. He was obviously not prepared for this Nixon redux and was stunned by the product coming to life this way.

Computer hardware manufacturers quickly saw Compton’s could help sell their boxes to consumers.

Tandy Corporation immediately struck a deal with Britannica to sell its new multimedia PC for $4,500, with the $895 Compton’s disc thrown in for free. IBM, not wishing to be left behind, quickly gave Britannica a million dollars towards EB’s continued development of the product, making sure it was adapted to IBM’s newly planned multimedia computer entry.

To help explain the revolutionary product, Britannica produced a Guided Tour video to explain what it did.

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