Inside IT
The Birth of Wiki

A Smart Creative World Past and Future 9

WIKI word cloud, business concept

Sharing information has been a common goal of many pioneering computing luminaries of the past – from Douglas Engelbart and Vannevar Bush to Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee.

Concepts such as Bush’s Memex and hypertext developed in the 1960s led to early knowledge base systems utilising hypertext such as Carnegie Mellon University’s ZOG in 1972 and Apple’s HyperCard which went on sale in 1987.

Hypercard had been the brainchild of programmer, Bill Atkinson who had been one of the original 30 person-strong original Apple Macintosh development team and had written the celebrated bitmap graphics creation program, MacPaint. Whilst it was under development and called WildCard, another member of the Apple team, Kent Beck, demonstrated it to a fellow programming colleague, Howard ‘Ward’ Cunningham who had earlier completed his master’s degree in computer science at Purdue University. Cunningham was impressed by HyperCard’s ability to link information in a simple, relatively user-friendly database formal though it was effectively only a single-user catalogue.

Cunningham had become fascinated by analysing computer program design patterns in order to come up with new solutions to harness the increasing power and ubiquity of computers at the start of the 1990s. He and like-minded colleagues assembled an email list of some 500 enthusiasts who were invited to the first Pattern Languages of Programs conference in 1994 at Monticello in Illinois. Amongst those who attended the conference were members of the University of Illinois who were developing the Mosaic graphical browser for the fledgling World Wide Web. One of their number, Brian Foote demonstrated the new browser to Cunningham and suggested that using Web hypertext would enable Cunningham to gather information on how programs were designed and written to create a repository found on the Web that could be disseminated, shared and built upon.

Work began on Cunningham’s novel database in Portland, Oregon in 1994. It started out in a conventional manner with Cunningham receiving text files from others which he converted into HTML for eventual publication on the World Wide Web. However, the conversion process was both time-consuming and tedious for one person to do, so Cunningham wrote software using the Perl programming language to create forms in which any user could enter information and program patterns themselves without any knowledge of HTML and the scripts would convert the information automatically into HTML displayable webpages.

Ward Cunningham

Ward Cunningham is justly proud of his invention of the wiki but recalled in an interview in the Dr. Dobbs journal in 2012, “Every day that I spent hours on that wiki, I would say to myself, “I’ve got to stop doing this. I’ve got to focus on my business. I have work to do”. (Source:

Seeking a name for his invention designed to speed up information sharing and collaboration, Cunningham recalled a visit to Hawaii he had made previously and the shuttle bus that ferried he and other passengers from Honolulu Airport – the Wiki Wiki Shuttle. The word, Wiki itself is a Hawaiian adjective meaning “quick” and so Cunningham named his creation WikiWikiWeb and first installed it on his company, Cunningham & Cunningham’s website, on March 25th, 1995.

As Cunningham described in an interview on the New Relic blog in 2016 to celebrate the 15 year anniversary of Wikipedia, his original Wiki was designed as, “basically a way of writing where you’re reading. On the Web before that, you would read something in one place but if you wanted to write more, you would have to go through a completely different mechanism. You couldn’t author through the Web before that”.

Cunningham encouraged others to contribute so their entries went up on the site and by 2004, WikiWikiWeb boasted more than 25,000 entries on aspects of programming. Less than 300 of these entries were written by Ward, the rest were the contributions of programmers and software developers hailing from all over the world. By relinquishing editorial control over the content and enabling any individual to create an entry on the site, Cunningham had ushered in the world of the Wiki – open and editable knowledge sources usually conveyed via the Web.

The number of Wikis has boomed since Cunningham’s creation. Many of the thousands of Wikis that exist are devoted to an aspect of computing such as OperaWiki dedicated to the Opera web browser and Voip-info for Voice Over Internet Protocol information. Others are devoted to popular leisure interests including LyricWiki for song lyrics and Wookieepedia – a Wiki begun in 2005 and now containing over 80,000 articles on Star Wars-related topics.

The most famous Wiki of all is, of course, Wikipedia which according to Alexa rankings, is the sixth most visited website in the world. It owes a crucial debt to the WikiWikiWeb and, especially, one of its contributors, programmer, Ben Kovitz. On 2nd of January, 2001, Kovitz had dinner at a taco stand in San Diego where he discussed his work on wikis with his colleague, Larry Sanger who was editor-in-chief on a project funded by web advertising company, Bomis, owned by Jimmy Wales, Michael E. Davis and Tim Shell. Sanger was involved in the creation of a new online peer-reviewed encyclopaedia, dubbed Nupedia which was running into difficulties. Designed to be free with the intention of gaining revenue from eventual banner advertising, Nupedia was headed by Jimmy Wales and used contributions from experts in their field. Yet, despite more than 18 months of development, this voluntary encyclopedia had produced just a handful of articles (less than two dozen in its first year) as it employed a convoluted seven stage approval process before an article could be published.

Kovitz urged Sanger to alter Nupedia to run along wiki lines and Sanger and Wales began a small spinoff project from Nupedia which gained its own domain in mid-January 2001 and which Sanger suggested they call Wikipedia. Unlike Nupedia, it operated on an open model and relied on voluntary contributions without peer review. Sanger described it, in an open letter to Nupedia contributors as, “a VERY open, VERY publicly-editable series of web Pages…It seems to me wikis can be implemented practically instantly, need very little maintenance, and in general are very low-risk.  They’re also a potentially great source for content.  So there’s little downside, as far as I can see”.

Larry Sanger

Larry Sanger had a crucial role at the very start of Wikipedia’s formation but left in 2002. He would later launch another Wiki, Citizendium, which went public in March, 2007. (Source:

Sanger’s words proved prophetic. Whilst many of the early articles were created by Bomis employees, and varied from lists of female tennis players to a biography of philosopher William Alston, article numbers started booming as a result of the website being profiled in the media in the summer of 2001. By September of that year, Wikipedia possessed 10,000 entries and by August 2002, 40,000.

In March 2006, a relatively nondescript article on a Scottish railway station called Jordanhill became the English language edition of Wikipedia’s millionth entry. On January 19, 2016, the Japanese Wikipedia exceeded the one million mark, becoming the thirteenth Wikipedia to reach that milestone. Others which have reached or passed one million separate entries include the Vietnamese version (2014), the Polish (2013), the Dutch version (2011) and the German (2009). Almost from the outset, Wales and Sanger had viewed the English language version of Wikipedia as just the beginning. A sub-domain for a German Wikipedia was established just six weeks after the English edition and editions for many languages were produced over the next two years. The Korean Wikipedia, for example, began in October 2002, and despite suffering issues with the Wiki software displaying Hangul character eventually blossomed to feature more than 320,000 articles by 2015. In the following year, according to Scientific American magazine, there were over 38 million articles found on Wikipedia in more than 250 languages. Whilst the English language edition remains the largest with 5,157,000 articles by May 2016, it comprises just 13% of all of Wikipedia’s multi-lingual output.

In 2003, after the dot com crash had caused Bomis to remove funding, Jimmy Wales founded the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) to maintain and operate the servers and software on which Wikipedia ran and to raise money to support its phenomenal growth. Up until 2004, Wikipedia was astonishingly run from a single server, but that number has increased to just under 400, based in Florida, USA and the Dutch city of Amsterdam. According to the International Business Times, running Wikipedia’s servers costs in excess of US$38,000 per week. To that can be added various running expenses and a paid legal, technical and communications staff which has grown to almost 300.

At varying times throughout Wikipedia’s lifetime, Wales has come under great pressure to monetise the websites with options as varied as paying for premium content to general subscription models and, the most commonly argued for of all, discrete banner advertising on the Wikipedia home page. Such advertising, on one of the world’s most popular website families, could yield many millions of income. Yet, the website, which receive more than 15 billion page views per month, remains steadfastly non-commercial. Entering its 15th anniversary year, Wikipedia appears in good financial health bolstered by private donations and annual fundraising drives. Its governing body, the Wikipedia Media Foundation received revenues of US$75,797,223 in the 2014-15 financial year and an appeal for donations in 2014 raised US$2,526,603 on a single day – December 3rd.

Jimmy Wales

When asked in The Daily Telegraph in 2016 whether he regretted not turning Wikipedia into a major commercial venture, Wales replied, “I don’t regret it at all. My life is very interesting, I get to meet all kinds of people, I can do whatever I like. I do things in my life, like going to lobby government officials, and I find it all hugely fascinating. I’m not a very money motivated person”. (Source:

Links for previous article series:

(1) The Beginning of a Computer: Charles Babbage, Ahead of His Time

(2) Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer

(3) ENIAC: First and Fast

(4) Grace Hopper: Debugging the Myths

(5) Evolution of Early Computers

(6) Revealing the Future: Douglas Engelbart

(7) Inventing the Web: Tim Berners-Lee

(8) Birth of the Internet

Written by Clive Gifford, LG CNS Blog’s Regular Contributor


Further Reading and References:

The Wiki Way – Bo Leuf & Ward Cunningham, Addison Wesley, 2001

One of the first guides to using Wiki software co-authored by the Wiki’s inventor, Howard Cunningham.

The World and Wikipedia: How We are Editing Reality – Andrew Dalby, Siduri Books, 2009.

A critical look at the merits and problems associated with an open, publicly edited knowledge base like Wikipedia from one of its editors and administrators.

The location of the first Wiki.

An informative TED Talk by Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales on the founding of Wikipedia.

An interview in Wired magazine with Jimmy Wales.

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