Part I

The Building of Britannica Online

From the middle 1980s people who were in some way associated with the Encyclopędia Britannica began to encounter the question "Is the Britannica available on the computer yet?" or, a little later, "When will Britannica be available on CD?" The questions, infrequent at first, became increasingly insistent as the '90s opened and the CD-ROM format became more widely familiar. Many people now believe that they remember seeing Microsoft's Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia in 1990 or 1991. In fact, Encarta on disk debuted in 1993 and was neither the first encyclopedia on CD-ROM - that had been the DOS-based text-only Grolier's in 1985 - nor the first multimedia encyclopedia on CD-ROM - that was Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia (a Britannica property) in 1989.

By the late1990s the question had mutated to "Is Britannica online yet?" The answer, which surprises some people to this day, was "Yes, and in fact it was the first such reference resource available on the Internet." That Encarta was able to dominate the market for CD-ROM encyclopedias from the moment of its entry is attributable to Microsoft's exhaustless funds, market position, and casual disregard for quality work. That Britannica's early coups should be so little known is attributable to factors beyond the scope of this essay, but chief among which was the inability of the company's senior management to embrace electronic publishing and pursue it forcefully. For example,

With the benefit of hindsight, a surprising number of people now claim fatherhood or motherhood of Britannica Online. A quick online search will turn up several of them. When some scholar finally undertakes to write a full history of the modern Britannica company, others will doubtless pop up. Lest their versions of history become too firmly embedded as conventional wisdom, I have compiled the following sketch of the genesis and early development of Britannica Online, focusing entirely on the people who actually created it, who had the ideas and did the real work, and who, when the company had finally lost not only its early leadership but its sense of direction, could only look back wistfully at what was one of the most rewarding episodes in their careers.


©2003 by Robert McHenry