Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Gift to the Digital Age

With a solid 28-year period serving as Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary, as well as Secretary of its one-time owner, the William Benton Foundation, Tony Bowe naturally turns his attention to asking his cousin about his career with Britannica.  Bill begins by telling Tony a bit about the history of EB, its founding in Edinburgh, Scotland, and its move to Chicago almost a century ago when it was purchased by Sears, Roebuck.

He notes that Sears made the enterprise profitable with its invention of a yearbook for the print set in the 1930s and how, when it failed to make a gift of the company to the University of Chicago during World War II, EB was purchased by University Vice President William Benton.  Ownership of the company after Benton’s death passed to the William Benton Foundation, which owned EB until it was sold to Jacob Safra in 1996.

In answer to Tony’s question as to how EB’s print set fared with the onset of the technologies of the early Digital Age, Bill discusses the role Charles Van Doren played in getting the Encyclopaedia Britannica online in the early 1980s.  He goes on to describe the thinking that was going on then as to what a digital encyclopedia might look like and the advantages EB had in possibly developing such a revolutionary product.  According to Bill, it was fortuitous, and coincident with hardware advances in computer processing units and digital storage,  that EB hired the brilliant software engineer Harold Kester.  He says it was Kester who brought about  the software search system invention at the heart of the first multimedia encyclopedia, Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia.

Bill explains that he filed a patent on the Compton’s multimedia search system in 1989 and that the U.S. Patent Office confirmed the invention’s original and foundational nature by issuing the patent some years later.  He goes on to note that in a strange twist to a quarter century of litigation that followed, the patent was ultimately found to have been wrongly issued.  This decision came in a legal malpractice case against the firm that originally filed the patent on behalf of EB.

As to the story of the Compton’s Patent, Bill concludes that, notwithstanding its long, troubled course under patent and malpractice legal regimes, the bottom line is that early in the Digital Age Encyclopaedia Britannica had made a fundamental and important contribution to the advance of the human/machine interface.

In response to Tony’s queries as to how Britannica’s print set did given the onset of the Digital Age, Bill says that after migrating Britannica’s CD-ROM to the internet in the 1990s, EB finally sunset its print set in 2012 shortly before he retired in 2014.  Bill added that the company had successfully made the transition in his time to a viable and profitable future with its distinguished reference work online.  Bill explained that with the necessary shedding of the print set’s substantial marketing and distribution apparatus, today’s leaner EB could simply enter into license agreements with state departments of education and the ministries of education.  He said that these arrangements were able to make multilingual versions of Encyclopaedia Britannica  available to millions of students worldwide, while the company’s subscription consumer market remained relatively modest.