Chicago-Based Britannica Marks 250th Birthday

Lisa Fielding
December 10, 2018 - 5:14 pm

 CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- You could call it the "OG" -- the "Original Google.”

"Days before the Internet, people wanted to know about a lot of things and Britannica was a great window to the outside world," said Karthik Krishnan, CEO of Britannica.

At 250 years old, Krishnan said, the company is one of the oldest in the world.

"We're actually older than Chicago, we are older than the U.S. because in 1768, there was no United States. The French Revolution had not even happen yet, there wasn't electricity. Uranus and Pluto hadn't even been discovered yet,” he said Monday.

On December 10, 1768, a small section of the first volume of the encyclopedia was published. What would eventually be a three-volume set was released piecemeal over three years, concluding in 1771. The founders supported the project through the 18th-century equivalent of a crowdfunding campaign.

From there, Britannica expanded to a 10-volume second edition beginning in 1777, and over the course of the 19th century and several new editions it would grow both in size and reputation to become one of the most trusted sources of information across the world.

Britannica was founded in Edinburgh, Scotland and moved to Chicago in the 1930s.

"When typewriters and steam engines died in changing environments, the Encyclopedia evolved."

Many students will remember the 32-book collection on many shelves in the 1950s and ensuing decades.

"Whether it’s dinner conversation with their parents where there is a question being asked and running to the encyclopedia for an answer or for school work -- for generations it's inspired curiosity. Our collection of our books are iconic, people hold onto them even though we stopped publishing in 2012,” Krishnan said.

The anniversary also coincides with the 25th anniversary of Britannica Online (, the first encyclopedia on the Internet and one of the first major publications on the World Wide Web.

"We launched the first CD-ROM drive four years before Microsoft Encarta did. At this point, the technology was so new, we had to send it along with a VHS tape to explain to people how to use a CD-ROM. In 1993, Britannica was one of the first sites to go digital,” Krishnan said.

250 years later, the digital version is in 83 countries, reaching about 150 million students on the school front. On the consumer side between Britannica and Merriam-Webster’s, we generate about 5 billion page views a year across all platforms which makes us one of the top ten digital destinations in the general reference category."

Britannica will conduct a yearlong series of celebrations, involving students, educators, and the public in forums, civic events and online activities.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proclaimed December 10, 2018 "Encyclopaedia Britannica Day."