Encyclopaedia Britannica Enters the Digital Age

In this installment of Tony Bowe’s conversations with his cousin, Bill Bowe discusses EB’s founding in 1768 in Scotland, and its migration from London and New York before being purchased by Sears Roebuck and moving to Chicago in the late 1920s. He goes on to recall that when Sears offered to give the company to the University of Chicago during World War II, the University trustees turned the offer down, thus opening the door for Britannica to be bought by William Benton, then a University Vice President. Bill says that when he arrived at EB as General Counsel in 1986, the company was then owned by a not-for-profit foundation of which Bill was Secretary.  He says the sole beneficiary of the William Benton Foundation was the University of Chicago and after the Foundation sold EB in 1996, the company was owned by Swiss investor Jaqui Safra.

Their conversation then turned to the technology revolution early in the Digital Age, and particularly the birth of the personal computer. Bill talks about the impact of these developments on Britannica, from its breakthrough computer interface invention in 1989 to the end of the print set in 2012.  He also describes the central role Charles Van Doren played in helping the company with its first online foray in the early 1980s and the EB’s 1989 patent filing on the Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia multimedia search system.

Bill wraps up by discussing the ensuing litigation involving the Compton’s patent and the extraordinary global internet reach of today’s multilingual internet reference work.  Bill reports that Britannica online is still painstakingly curated and, with only internet distribution, has dramatically shrunk in size, while at the same time reaching the largest market by far in its entire history.  Bill says Encyclopaedia Britannica is now broadly available not just to consumers, but to millions of students and adults in the broad institutional market of schools and libraries around the world.