What Is an Encyclopedia? (Wikipedia)

We owe the word "encyclopedia" to Classic Greek, enkyklios paideia, literally meaning a "rounded education," or something that contains the entirety of general knowledge. Attempts to gather all human knowledge go as far back as Roman times, often taking the form of specific encyclopedias created for particular disciplines and perspectives. Compared to today’s classifications of science and history, their manner of organization seems somewhat quirky, if not comical. Some encyclopedias were based around the senses, for example—vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The encyclopedia as a sum of all human knowledge has mirrored the limited known state of the world. So it was not until the era of exploration and heavy trade that the modern idea of a complete recording of the world’s knowledge became a reality.

Pliny the Elder, a Roman who lived in the first century a.d., wrote perhaps the first widely recognized encyclopedia in Naturalis Historia, a thirty-seven-book volume that attempted to cover all the known natural world. Its categorization is remarkably modern, with different volumes covering mathematics, geography, ethnography, physiology, zoology, botany, pharmacology, and mineralogy. Showing the Roman fondness for art, there were dedicated volumes just for statuary in bronze and sculpture in marble. Encyclopedias, even back in this era, were compendia of other people’s work, so the preface explicitly stated that the Naturalis Historia contained "20,000 facts gathered from some 2,000 books and from 100 select authors."

The Chinese Yongle encyclopedia of 1403-1407 was a massive work, and the largest in the world at the time, using two thousand scholars and eight thousand texts for its creation and covering all matters related to history, literature, medicine, natural sciences, and more. Unfortunately, size was one of this encyclopedia’s enemies. It was too large to be block printed and only existed on hand-copied scrolls and manuscripts. Chinese dwellings over the centuries were largely made of wood, unfortunately, and most of the manuscripts were lost to fire. It is said that only four hundred or so volumes have survived to modern times, scattered across libraries and private collections.

But the true mother of the modern encyclopedia was the French Encyclopedie of the 1700s, formally known as "Encyclopedia, or a systematic dictionary of the sciences, arts, and crafts." Originally, Jean Paul de Gua de Malves was hired to create it, but after just a year on the job, in August 1747, he was fired from the position and Jean le Rond d’Alembert and Denis Diderot took over. Most of the world would come to know the name Diderot, as he would spend the next twenty-five years seeing through the Encyclopedie project. Encyclopedie was a powerhouse for the Enlightenment, challenging Catholic dogma by presenting Protestant beliefs and featuring prominent thinkers as authors, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu.

As was typical of many English-French interactions of the era, the Encyclopedia Britannica was conceived as a conservative alternative to the more radical Encyclopedie across the channel in France. Proposed by Edinburgh bookseller Colin Macfarquhar and engraver Bell, the first edition was completed in 1771 and consisted of 2,391 pages, released in weekly installments to subscribers. The most famous was perhaps the eleventh edition, published in 1910-1911 and released as twenty-eight volumes all at once, rather than in weekly editions as in the past. This particular edition became so well regarded that it is still used today, as its copyright has expired and it has passed into the public domain. In the early days of the Internet, this 1911 Britannica was one of the few encyclopedias freely available online.

While the content was receiving praise, the business side of Britannica was in trouble, and the owner, Horace Everett Hooper, tried desperately to find a sponsor. The encyclopedia changed sponsors from Cambridge University, whose scholars assisted in reviewing entries, to Sears, Roebuck, before finally gaining its footing again as a separate company in Chicago. The encyclopedia business was a tough one. Academics had to be found and paid to regularly overhaul the content for new editions, and sales of current editions were undermined as consumers waited for the updated ones. Britannica hit its stride with the fifteenth print edition in 1985, after responding to complaints that it had badly fractured information among its three-part structure during the 1970s: the Micropaedia, the Macropaedia, and the Propaedia volumes. The reorganized Britannica went on to be successful, running anywhere from 400,000 topics in 1989 to 700,000 topics in 2007.

A smaller but popular tome in the United States was the World Book encyclopedia, which appealed not to scholars but to household purchasers. Its colorful illustrations and hardy pages made it easy to handle, but it had limited appeal because it was not as detailed as Britannica or other "collegiate" or academic encyclopedias.

By the late 1980s, Microsoft was interested in collaborating with Britannica to make an electronic version of the encyclopedia, as CD-ROMs were becoming a popular publishing platform, storing 650 megabytes of data on a disc, considered quite large at the time. However, Britannica declined, deciding its profits were doing nicely and the company could go it alone in creating electronic editions. It would prove to be a fateful call. Britannica print editions were around $2,000 per set, bringing in decent income for the company and making them rather conservative when it came to disrupting a proven revenue stream.

Microsoft still wanted to make an encyclopedia product, and went looking at other encyclopedias using its classic "embrace and extend" model: Identify and follow the lead of a competitor, but establish a superior product. It found a partner in Funk & Wagnalls. It licensed the content from their Standard Encyclopedia to publish the CD-ROM-based Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia in 1993. At first it was considered unimpressive, and not terribly competitive in the marketplace. But because Encarta CD-ROMs were bundled with many new computer purchases of Microsoft Windows it tore into sales of Britannica’s print product. Only in 1994 did Britannica come back with a CD-ROM product, which sold for $995 or came bundled for free with a purchase of its pricey print edition. There was also an online edition of Britannica, but subscriptions were $2,000 a year. Britannica tried to hold its own with its deeper and more reputable content, but Microsoft continued to aggressively upgrade Encarta by buying Collier’s Encyclopedia and adding more innovative multimedia features. By the time 2000 rolled around, both Encarta and Britannica had disc-based electronic editions for sale and online editions that required subscriptions. Since Encarta was part of the Microsoft behemoth, there was no pressure for it to make money on its own. Britannica was struggling at the time to compete price- and feature-wise with Microsoft.

World Book came out with a CD-ROM edition of its encyclopedia as well, appealing to the same household market, but chose not to have an online version. Among the three big players in the English-language market, there was no complete and modern encyclopedia available for free on the Internet. With content behind the "subscription firewall," Encarta and Britannica had annual prices tailored primarily to big-budget institutions, such as libraries and universities.

At least the English-language encyclopedia market had choices. For many other languages, the choices were even fewer, with one dominant encyclopedia and a smattering of much smaller ones. For Germans, the Brockhaus was the most famous and for the French the Grand Larousse Encyclopedique.

The market was ripe for something to fill the void.

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