The earliest known proposal for an online encyclopedia was made by Rick Gates in 1993, but the concept of an open source web-based online encyclopedia was proposed by Richard Stallman in December 2000. Wikipedia was formally launched on 15 January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, using the concept and technology of a wiki pioneered in 1995 by Ward Cunningham. Initially, Wikipedia was created to complement Nupedia, an online encyclopedia project edited solely by experts, by providing additional draft articles and ideas for it. Wikipedia quickly overtook Nupedia, becoming a global project in multiple languages and inspiring a wide range of other online reference projects.
As of August 2013[update], Wikipedia includes over 28.8 million freely usable articles in 287 languages, written by over 41 million registered users and numerous anonymous contributors worldwide. According to Alexa Internet, Wikipedia is the world’s seventh-most-popular website. According to comScore, Wikipedia receives over 85 million monthly unique visitors from the United States alone
The concept of the world’s knowledge in a single location dates to the ancient Libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum, but the modern concept of a general purpose, widely distributed, printed encyclopedia originated with Denis Diderot and the 18th-century French encyclopedists. The idea of using automated machinery beyond the printing press to build a more useful encyclopedia can be traced to Paul Otlet‘s book Traité de documentation (1934; Otlet also founded the Mundaneum institution in 1910), H. G. Wells‘ book of essays World Brain (1938) and Vannevar Bush‘s future vision of the microfilm based Memex in As We May Think (1945). Another milestone was Ted Nelson‘s hypertext design Project Xanadu, begun in 1960.
While previous encyclopedias, notably the Encyclopædia Britannica, were book-based, Microsoft’s Encarta, published in 1993, was available on CD-ROM and hyperlinked. With the development of the web, many people attempted to develop Internet encyclopedia projects. An early proposal was Interpedia in 1993 by Rick Gates; but this project died before generating any encyclopedic content. Free software exponent Richard Stallman described the usefulness of a “Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource” in 1999. His published document “aims to lay out what the free encyclopedia needs to do, what sort of freedoms it needs to give the public, and how we can get started on developing it.” On 17 January 2001, two days after the start of Wikipedia, the Free Software Foundation‘s GNUPedia project went online, competing with Nupedia, but today the FSF encourages people “to visit and contribute to [Wikipedia]”.
Formulation of the concept
Wikipedia was initially conceived as a feeder project for Nupedia, an earlier project to produce a free online encyclopedia, volunteered by Bomis, a web-advertising firm owned by Jimmy Wales, Tim Shell and Michael E. Davis. Nupedia was founded upon the use of highly qualified volunteer contributors and an elaborate multi-step peer review process. Despite its mailing-list of interested editors, and the presence of a full-time editor-in-chief, Larry Sanger, a graduate philosophy student hired by Wales, the writing of content for Nupedia was extremely slow, with only 12 articles written during the first year.
Wales and Sanger discussed various ways to create content more rapidly. The idea of a wiki-based complement originated from a conversation between Larry Sanger and Ben Kovitz. Ben Kovitz was a computer programmer and regular on Ward Cunningham‘s revolutionary wiki “the WikiWikiWeb“. He explained to Sanger what wikis were, at that time a difficult concept to understand, over a dinner on 2 January 2001. Wales first stated, in October 2001, that “Larry had the idea to use Wiki software”, though he later stated in December 2005 that Jeremy Rosenfeld, a Bomis employee, introduced him to the concept. Sanger thought a wiki would be a good platform to use, and proposed on the Nupedia mailing list that a wiki based upon UseModWiki (then v. 0.90) be set up as a “feeder” project for Nupedia. Under the subject “Let’s make a wiki”, he wrote:
No, this is not an indecent proposal. It’s an idea to add a little feature to Nupedia. Jimmy Wales thinks that many people might find the idea objectionable, but I think not. (…) As to Nupedia’s use of a wiki, this is the ULTIMATE “open” and simple format for developing content. We have occasionally bandied about ideas for simpler, more open projects to either replace or supplement Nupedia. 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 determine.
Wales set one up and put it online on 10 January 2001.
Founding of Wikipedia
There was considerable resistance on the part of Nupedia’s editors and reviewers to the idea of associating Nupedia with a wiki-style website. Sanger suggested giving the new project its own name, Wikipedia, and Wikipedia was soon launched on its own domain, wikipedia.com, on 15 January 2001. The bandwidth and server (located in San Diego) used for these initial projects were donated by Bomis. Many former Bomis employees later contributed content to the encyclopedia: notably Tim Shell, co-founder and later CEO of Bomis, and programmer Jason Richey.
In December 2008, Wales stated that he made Wikipedia’s first edit, a test edit with the text “Hello, World!”. The oldest article still preserved is the article UuU, created on 16 January 2001, at 21:08 UTC. The existence of the project was formally announced and an appeal for volunteers to engage in content creation was made to the Nupedia mailing list on 17 January.
The project received many new participants after being mentioned on the Slashdot website in July 2001, with two minor mentions in March 2001. It then received a prominent pointer to a story on the community-edited technologies and culture website Kuro5hin on 25 July. Between these relatively rapid influxes of traffic, there had been a steady stream of traffic from other sources, especially Google, which alone sent hundreds of new visitors to the site every day. Its first major mainstream media coverage was in the New York Times on 20 September 2001.
The project passed 1,000 articles around 12 February 2001, and 10,000 articles around 7 September. In the first year of its existence, over 20,000 encyclopedia entries were created – a rate of over 1,500 articles per month. On 30 August 2002, the article count reached 40,000.
Wikipedia’s earliest edits were long believed lost, since the original UseModWiki software deleted old data after about a month. On the eve of Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary, 14 December 2010, developer Tim Starling found backups on SourceForge containing every change made to Wikipedia from its creation in January 2001 to 17 August 2001.
Namespaces, subdomains, and internationalization
Early in Wikipedia’s development, it began to expand internationally, with the creation of new namespaces, each with a distinct set of usernames. The first subdomain created for a non-English Wikipedia was deutsche.wikipedia.com (created on 16 March 2001, 01:38 UTC), followed after a few hours by Catalan.wikipedia.com (at 13:07 UTC). The Japanese Wikipedia, started as nihongo.wikipedia.com, was created around that period, and initially used only Romanized Japanese. For about two months Catalan was the one with the most articles in a non-English language, although statistics of that early period are imprecise. The French Wikipedia was created on or around 11 May 2001, in a wave of new language versions that also included Chinese, Dutch, Esperanto, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. These languages were soon joined by Arabic and Hungarian. In September 2001, an announcement pledged commitment to the multilingual provision of Wikipedia, notifying users of an upcoming roll-out of Wikipedias for all major languages, the establishment of core standards, and a push for the translation of core pages for the new wikis. At the end of that year, when international statistics first began to be logged, Afrikaans, Norwegian, and Serbian versions were announced.
In January 2002, 90% of all Wikipedia articles were in English. By January 2004, fewer than 50% were English, and this internationalization has continued to increase. As of 2012, around 83% of all Wikipedia articles are contained within non-English Wikipedia versions..