History of Wikipedia

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Recent History

Wikipedia, a project to produce a free content encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone, formally began on 15 January 2001 as a complement to the similar, but expert-written, Nupedia project. It has since replaced Nupedia, growing to become a large global project. As of 2006, it includes millions of articles and pages worldwide, and content from hundreds of thousands of contributors.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder
Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder


The concept of gathering all of the world's knowledge in a single place goes back to the ancient Library of Alexandria and Pergamon, but the modern concept of a general purpose, widely distributed, printed encyclopedia dates from shortly before Denis Diderot and the 18th century encyclopedists. The idea of using automated machinery beyond the printing press to build a more useful encyclopedia can be traced to H. G. Wells' short story World Brain ( 1937) and Vannevar Bush's future vision of the microfilm based Memex in As We May Think ( 1945). Another milestone was Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu in 1960.

With the development of the web, many people attempted to develop Internet encyclopedia projects. Free software exponent Richard Stallman described the usefulness of a "Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource" in 1999. He described Wikipedia's formation as "exciting news" and his Free Software Foundation encourages people "to visit and contribute to the site". One never-realized predecessor was the Interpedia, which Robert McHenry has linked conceptually to Wikipedia.

Formulation of the idea

Wikipedia was founded as a feeder project for Nupedia, an earlier (now defunct) project founded by Jimmy Wales to produce a free encyclopedia. Nupedia had an elaborate multi-step peer review process, and required highly qualified contributors. The writing of articles was slow throughout 2000, the first year that project was online, despite having a mailing-list of interested editors and a full-time editor-in-chief, Larry Sanger.

During Nupedia's first year, Wales and Sanger discussed various ways to supplement Nupedia with a more open, complementary project. Wales has claimed that Jeremy Rosenfeld, a Bomis employee, introduced him to the concept of a wiki. Independently, Ben Kovitz, a computer programmer and regular on Ward Cunningham's wiki (the WikiWikiWeb), introduced Sanger to wikis over dinner on January 2, 2001. Sanger thought a wiki would be a good platform to use, and proposed that a UseModWiki (then v. 0.90) be set up for Nupedia. Wales set one up and put it online on January 10.

Beginnings of a new project

The Wikipedia logo used until late 2001

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 January 15. This day is now known as " Wikipedia Day" within the community.

The bandwidth and Server (located in San Diego) used for these projects were donated by Bomis. Many current and past Bomis employees have contributed some content to the encyclopedia; notably Tim Shell, co-founder and current CEO of Bomis, and programmer Jason Richey.

The first edits ever made on Wikipedia are believed to be test edits by Wales, however the oldest article still preserved is (as documented at Wikipedia:Wikipedia's oldest articles) the article UuU, created by the user Eiffel.demon.co.uk on 16 January 2001, at 21:08 UTC. This was on the second day after the start of Wikipedia.

The project received many new participants after being mentioned three times on the Slashdot website — two minor mentions in March 2001.. It then received a prominent pointer to a story on the community-edited technology and culture website Kuro5hin on July 25. Between these relatively rapid influxes of traffic, there has been a steady stream of traffic from other sources, especially Google, which alone sent hundreds of new visitors to the site every day.

The Wikipedia logo, designed by The Cunctator, used from late 2001 until 2003

The project passed 1,000 articles around February 12, 2001, and 10,000 articles around September 7. In the first year of its existence, over 20,000 encyclopedia entries were created — a rate of over 1,500 articles per month. On August 30, 2002, the article count reached 40,000. The rate of growth has more or less steadily increased since the inception of the project, except for a few software- and hardware-induced slow-downs.

International expansion

Early in Wikipedia's development, it began to expand internationally. The first domain reserved for a non-English Wikipedia was deutsche.wikipedia.com (on 16 March 2001), followed after some minutes by the Catalan, being the latter during for about two months the only one with articles in a non-English language. The first reference of the French Wikipedia is from 23 March and then in May 2001 it followed a wave of new language versions in Chinese, Dutch, Esperanto, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. They were soon joined by Arabic and Hungarian In September, a further commitment to the multilingual provision of Wikipedia was made. At the end of the year, when international statistics first began to be logged, Afrikaans, Norwegian, and Serbian versions were announced.

Continuing growth


Size of Wikipedia, until September 2002.
Size of Wikipedia, until September 2002.
Wikipedia growth rate, until September 2002.
Wikipedia growth rate, until September 2002.
Wikipedia traffic rate, until September 2002.
Wikipedia traffic rate, until September 2002.

Until January 2002, Sanger was employed by Bomis as editor-in-chief of Nupedia and the unofficial leader of Wikipedia. Funding ran out, however, and Sanger resigned from both positions in March 2002.

  • In February 2002, most participants of the Spanish Wikipedia broke away to establish the Enciclopedia Libre. The project is occasionally visited by "vandals" who remove valid articles or post inappropriate content. While such vandalism is generally quickly reverted, the project's main page was, for a time, subjected to repeated vandalism. This led to the protection of the page so that it could only be changed by administrators.
  • On April 4, 2002 Brilliant Prose, since renamed to Wikipedia:Featured Articles, was moved to the Wikipedia Namespace from the article namespace. At that time, selection was informal; the Featured Articles Candidacy process was not to be instituted for several years yet.
  • In August 2002, shortly after Jimmy Wales announced that he would never run commercial advertisements on Wikipedia, the URL of Wikipedia was changed from wikipedia.com to wikipedia.org (see: .com and .org).
  • In the same summer, policy and style issues were clarified with the creation of the Wikipedia:Manual of Style, along with a number of other policies and guidelines.
  • In October 2002, Derek Ramsey started to use a "bot", or program, to add a large number of articles about United States towns; these articles were automatically generated from U.S. census data. Occasionally, similar bots had been used before for other topics. These articles were generally well received, but some users criticized them for their uniformity and generally machine-like writing style (for example, see this version of a town article).
  • In December 2002, the first sister project, Wiktionary, was created; aiming to produce a dictionary and thesaurus of the words in all languages. It uses the same software as Wikipedia.


  • In January 2003, support for mathematical formulas in TeX was added. The code was contributed by Tomasz Wegrzanowski.
  • On January 22, 2003, the English Wikipedia was again slashdotted after having reached the 100,000 article milestone. Two days later, the German language Wikipedia, the largest non-English version, passed the 10,000 article mark.
  • On June 20, 2003, the Wikimedia Foundation was founded. On the same day " Wikiquote" was created. A month later, " Wikibooks" was launched.
  • Around October 15, 2003, the current Wikipedia logo was installed. The logo concept was selected by a voting process, which was followed by a revision process to select the best variant. The final selection was created by David Friedland based on a logo design and concept created by Paul Stansifer.
  • On October 28, 2003, the first "real" meeting of Wikipedians happened in Munich. Many cities followed suit, and soon a number of regular Wikipedian get-togethers were established around the world. Several Internet communities, including one on the popular blog website LiveJournal, have also sprung up since.
  • After 6 December 2003, Wikipedia administrators could change the text of the interface by editing the pages in the MediaWiki namespace such as the page that a blocked user will see when they try to edit a page. ( MediaWiki:Blockedtext).


  • In January 2004, Wikipedia passed the 200,000 article milestone in English and reached 450,000 articles for both English and non-English wikis. The next month, the combined article count of the English and non-English wikis reached 500,000.
  • In late February 2004 a coordinated new look for the Main Page appeared. On February 25, the listing of important overview articles, was replaced by a single link to Template:WikipediaTOC. Hand-chosen entries for the Daily Featured Article, Anniversaries, In the News, and Did You Know rounded out the new look. On February 26, 2004, User:maveric149 (Daniel Mayer) implemented the first entries of an automated archive for the Selected anniversaries which appear on the Main Page. This feature updates daily on the Main Page of the English Wikipedia.
  • On April 20, 2004, the article count of the English wiki reached 250,000.
  • On May 29, 2004, all the various Wikiprojects were updated to a new version of MediaWiki, the software that runs the various Wikiprojects.
  • On May 30, 2004, the first instances of Wikipedia:Categorization entries appeared: Category:Mathematics and Category:World War II. Category schemes, like Recent Changes and Edit This Page, had existed from the founding of Wikipedia. However Larry Sanger had viewed the schemes as lists, and even hand-entered articles, whereas the categorization effort centered on individual categorization entries in each article of the encyclopedia, as part of a larger automatic categorization of the articles of the encyclopedia.
  • On June 2, 2004, the People's Republic of China blocked the access to the Chinese Wikipedia in mainland China. A few days later, all language Wikipedias were blocked. The ban was lifted on June 17.
  • After 3 June 2004, administrators could edit the style of the interface by changing the CSS in the monobook stylesheet at MediaWiki:Monobook.css.
  • On July 7, 2004, the article count of the English wiki reached 300,000.
  • From July 10 to August 30, 2004 the Wikipedia:Browse and Wikipedia:Browse by overview formerly on the Main Page were replaced by links to overviews. On August 27, 2004 the Community Portal was started, to serve as a focus for community efforts. These were previously accomplished on an informal basis, by individual queries of the Recent Changes, in wiki style, as ad-hoc collaborations between like-minded editors.
  • On September 20, 2004, Wikipedia reached one million articles in over 105 languages, and received a flurry of related attention in the press. The one millionth article was published in the Hebrew language Wikipedia, and discusses the flag of Kazakhstan.
  • On November 20, 2004, the article count of the English wiki reached 400,000.


  • On February 5, 2005, the first Wikipedia:Portal, since renamed to Portal:Biology was created.
  • On March 18, 2005, Wikipedia passed the 500,000 article milestone in English.
  • On 7 June 2005 at 3:00AM Eastern Standard Time the bulk of the Wikimedia servers were moved to a new facility across the street. All Wikimedia projects were down during this time.
  • On June 19, 2005, the English Wikipedia passed the 600,000 article mark.
  • On July 16, 2005, the English Wikipedia began the practice of including the day's Wikipedia:Featured pictures on the Main Page, in the space until then occupied by the " Wikipedia:Did you know" section. The featured picture of the day now appears daily as part of the recent Main Page redesign.
  • On August 25, 2005, the English Wikipedia passed the 700,000 article mark.
  • On September 29, 2005, the English Wikipedia passed the 750,000 article mark.
  • As of Saturday, October 15, 2005, there were over 500,000 accounts registered on English Wikipedia.
  • On October 20, 2005, direct access to all the Wikipedia sites was blocked in most areas of mainland China.
  • On November 1, 2005, the English Wikipedia passed the 800,000 article mark.
  • And all during the year, other languages versions were also active (which might not be obvious from this summary)

Seigenthaler incident

On November 29, 2005, John Seigenthaler Sr. wrote an op-ed in USA Today to criticize a biography written about him at Wikipedia. Earlier versions of the Wikipedia entry, online from May through September of that year, had contained incorrect statements about Seigenthaler, and this information also appeared on Wikipedia syndicate sites Reference.com and Answers.com. Specifically the statement, "For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven." Seigenthaler described the statements, which had been written by an anonymous Wikipedia user, as "Internet character assassination". Seigenthaler did not use the collaborative editing feature of Wikipedia to correct the misstatement himself. Seigenthaler said "I am interested in letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool." He also equated Wikipedia to gossip. In an Interview with a CNN reporter, the reporter also expressed concern about her own biography which she said portrayed her as she did not wish to be portrayed. The author of the hoax, Brian Chase, was discovered in December 2005. He subsequently resigned from his job and apologized in person to Seigenthaler. Chase was traced through the IP address of the 26 May post, which led to his employer's computer system. The controversy brought Wikipedia an unprecedented level of (mainly negative) publicity in major media outlets. Wikipedia's share of internet page views as recorded by Alexa doubled in less than two months after the publication of the editorial, which was well above the average rate of growth through 2005.

Image:Seigenthaler effect.gif

  • On December 5, 2005, registration became a requirement for the creation of New pages on the English speaking Wikipedia. See Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2005-12-05/Page creation restrictions.

Nature study

On December 14, 2005, the scientific journal Nature published the results of a comparative review between the Britannica and the Wikipedia Encyclopedias concerning scientific articles. This, being the first comparative review concerning Wikipedia of its kind, was done by scientific experts in their field. They were given articles about the same subject, one from Britannica, and one from Wikipedia. Scientists did not know the source, and were told to look for factual errors, critical omissions, and misleading statements. After examining 42 articles in both the encyclopedias, Nature obtained the following results:

Britannica: 123 errors, an average of 2.92 by article
Wikipedia: 162 errors, an average of 3.86 by article.

The data shows that, at least in science, Wikipedia has comparable accuracy to other modern encyclopedias. However, some of the Wikipedia articles were found to be "poorly structured and confusing". In March, 2006, Britannica criticised the study as inaccurate, stating "Almost everything about the journal’s investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading."

  • On December 22, 2005, a Semi-protection policy was implemented in Wikipedia's MediaWiki software.


  • On January 10, Wikipedia® became a registered trademark of Wikimedia Foundation.
  • On February 28, the one-millionth user account was registered for the English language edition.
  • On March 1, the English language Wikipedia passed the 1,000,000 article mark, with Jordanhill railway station.
  • On March 19, following a vote, the Main Page of the English language Wikipedia featured its first redesign in nearly two years.
  • On April 4, the first CD selection in English was published as a free download (see 2006 Wikipedia CD Selection).
  • On June 8, the English language Wikipedia passed the 1,000 featured article mark, with Iranian peoples.
  • On November 24, the English language Wikipedia passed the 1,500,000 article mark, with Kanab Ambersnail.

Access in Mainland China

The People's Republic of China and internet service providers in Mainland China have adopted a practice of blocking contentious Internet sites in mainland China, and Wikimedia sites have been blocked at least three times in its history. Currently, Wikimedia appears to be undergoing the third block in its history.

The first block lasted between June 2 and June 21, 2004. It began when access to the Chinese Wikipedia from Beijing was blocked on the fifteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Possibly related to this, on May 31 an article from the IDG News Service was published, discussing the Chinese Wikipedia's treatment of the protests. The Chinese Wikipedia also has articles related to Taiwanese independence, written by contributors from Taiwan and elsewhere. A few days after the initial block of Chinese Wikipedia, all Wikimedia sites were blocked in Mainland China. In response to the blocks, two sysops prepared an appeal to lift the block and asked their regional internet service provider to submit it. All Wikimedia sites were unblocked between June 17 and June 21, 2004.

The first block had an effect on the vitality of Chinese Wikipedia, which suffered sharp dips in various indicators such as the number of new users, the number of new articles, and the number of edits. In some cases, it took anywhere from six to twelve months in order to recover to the levels of May 2004.

The second and less serious outage lasted between September 23 and September 27, 2004. During this four day period, access to Wikipedia was erratic or unavailable to some users in mainland China — this block was not comprehensive and some users in mainland China were never affected. The exact reason for the block is unknown, but it may have been linked with the closing down of YTHT BBS, a popular Peking University-based BBS that was shut down a few weeks earlier for hosting overtly radical political discussions. Refugees from the BBS had arrived en masse on Chinese Wikipedia. Chinese Wikipedians once again prepared a written appeal to regional ISPs, but the block was lifted before the appeal was actually sent out; the reasons of which are, once again, a mystery.

The third block began on October 19, 2005, and seems to have ended around mid October, 2006. For the first few days the English Wikipedia seems to have been unblocked in most provinces in China, while users are still unable to access the Chinese version in certain provinces, varying by ISP. By November, both versions seemed to be accessible in all provinces and by all ISPs. The end to the block came about a year after it began, and also coincided with the Chinese Wikipedia's 100,000th article milestone. However, both the Chinese and English Wikipedias were re-blocked on November 17.

Authorship of the Wikipedia concept

There has been debate about Sanger’s role in the creation of Wikipedia and the extent to which he has been given accurate credit for his contributions. Sanger has claimed variously to have "conceived of" Wikipedia and to have co-founded it, which Jimmy Wales has disputed, stating, "He used to work for me [...] I don't agree with calling him a co-founder, but he likes the title." Part of the disparity in outlook may lie in the difference between the terms "open source" and "wiki" and Nupedia versus Wikipedia. Sanger concedes that it was Wales alone who conceived of an encyclopedia that non-experts could contribute to, i.e., the Nupedia. "To be clear, the idea of an open source, collaborative encyclopedia, open to contribution by ordinary people, was entirely Jimmy’s, not mine" (emphasis in original text). However, Sanger maintains that it was he who brought the wiki concept to Wales and suggested it be applied to Nupedia and that, after some initial skepticism, Wales agreed to try it. Wales has claimed that Jeremy Rosenfeld first suggested the idea of a wiki to him, though he claimed earlier, in October 2001, that "Larry had the idea to use Wiki software." Sanger also maintains that he "came up with the name 'Wikipedia', a silly name for what was at first a very silly project."

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