Walking around New York City last week I stumbled across a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the curb for recycling. It was a jolt from the past.
My parents bought a set in the early 1980s when I went to high school. Everyone had one. It cost $1,400 ($4,750 today).
Encyclopedia Britannica was created in 1758 and published for 244 years before evaporating in an historical eyeblink.
The wild part of the story is that they had a chance to pivot. In the 1980s Microsoft tried to collaborate to build a digital version. They were turned down.
It made sense at the time. Britannica was on a tear, selling a record 120,000 sets and booking $650 million in revenue in 1990.
So Microsoft built Encarta instead and bundled it into its software. And meanwhile Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web.
By 1996, Britannica sold just 40,000 sets.
The nail in the coffin came on Jan. 15, 2001 when Wikipedia launched.
Britannica’s final edition was published in 2010.
You can still find vintage editions on Ebay for $300.
Or you can read about it on Wikipedia.