The old dream of a world encyclopedia of Paul Otlet and Herbert Wells from the 1930s became possible in the 1990s, after the rapid progress of the Internet and the World Wide Web.
The first known proposal for an online Internet encyclopedia was made by the Internet enthusiast Rick Gates in October 1993. Gates proposed in a message titled The Internet Encyclopedia, published in the Usenet newsgroup alt.internet.services, to collaboratively create an encyclopedia on the Internet, which would allow anyone to contribute by writing articles and submitting them to the central catalog of all encyclopedias pages. Later the term Interpedia was coined for this encyclopedia, but the project never left the planning stages and finally died.
Several years later, in 1999, the famous open-source activist Richard Stallman popularized his concept of an open-source web-based online encyclopedia, but his idea also remained unrealized.
The first working online encyclopedia became Wikipedia, launched in January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. The founders used the concept and technology of a wiki devised in 1994 by the computer programmer Ward Cunningham. A wiki is a website that allows the easy creation and editing of any number of interlinked web pages via a web browser, using a simplified markup language or a WYSIWYG text editor. A special wiki software has been created, which is often used to create collaborative websites.
Jimmy Donal Wales was on born 7 August 1966, in Huntsville, Alabama. He received his bachelor’s degree in finance from Auburn University and entered the Ph.D. finance program at the University of Alabama before leaving with a master’s degree to enter the Ph.D. finance program at Indiana University. He taught at both universities during his postgraduate studies but did not write the doctoral dissertation required for a Ph.D., something which he has ascribed to boredom.
In 1994, rather than writing his doctoral dissertation, Wales took a job in a Chicago futures and options trading firm. By speculating on the interest rate and foreign currency fluctuations, he had soon earned enough to support himself and his wife for the rest of their lives.
Wales was addicted to the Internet from an early stage and used to write computer code as a pastime. Inspired by the remarkable initial public offering of Netscape in 1995, he decided to become an internet entrepreneur, and in 1996 founded the web portal Bomis with two partners. The website featured user-generated webrings and for a time sold erotic photographs. It was something like a “guy-oriented search engine” with a market similar to that of a male magazine and was positioned as the Playboy of the Internet. Bomis did not become successful, but in 2000 hosted and provided the initial funding for the Nupedia project.
Wales began thinking about an open-content online encyclopedia built by volunteers in the fall of 1999, and in January 2000, he hired Sanger to oversee its development. The project, called Nupedia, officially went online in March 2000. Nupedia was designed as a free content encyclopedia, whose articles were written by experts and intended to generate revenue from online ads. It was initially not based on the wiki concept, it was instead characterized by an extensive peer-review process, designed to make its articles of a quality comparable to that of professional encyclopedias. In 2001 Sanger brought the wiki concept to Wales and suggested it be applied to Nupedia and then, after some initial skepticism, Wales agreed to try it. Nupedia’s however ceased operating in 2003, producing only 24 articles that completed its complex review process.
In January 2001, Wales decided to switch to the GNU Free Documentation License at the urgings of Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation, and started the Wikipedia project, reserving Wikipedia.com and Wikipedia.org domain names. Initially, Wikipedia (the word was devised by Sanger) was created as a side-project and feeder to Nupedia, in order to provide an additional source of draft articles and ideas, but it quickly overtook Nupedia, growing to become a large global project, and originating a wide range of additional reference projects. Jimmy Wales announced that he would never run commercial advertisements on Wikipedia.
There was another similar project at this time—GNUPedia, but it had a somewhat bureaucratic structure, that’s why it was never really developed and soon died, surpassed by Wikipedia.
Initially, Wikipedia ran on UseModWiki, written in Perl. The server has run on Linux to this day, although the original text was stored in files rather than in a database. In 2002 it was replaced by new software, written specifically for the project, which included a PHP wiki engine. Later a new version, MediaWiki, was developed, which has been updated many times and is working till now.
As Wikipedia grew and attracted contributors, it quickly developed a life of its own and began to function largely independently of Nupedia, although Sanger initially led activity on Wikipedia by virtue of his position as Nupedia’s editor-in-chief. Due to the collapse of the internet economy at that time, Jimmy Wales decided to discontinue funding for a salaried editor-in-chief in December 2001 and the next year Sanger resigned.
During the years, a lot of sister Wikipedia projects evolved—Wiktionary (dictionary and thesaurus), Wikiquote, Wikibooks, Wikisource, Wikimedia Commons. etc.
Wikipedia has been blocked on some occasions by national authorities. To date, these have been related to China, France, Germany, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela.
As of December 2022, there are some 6.7 million articles (57 million pages) in the English Wikipedia.