Saturday, February 18, 2012

The first Wikipedia


No, this is not an article about Wikipedia. It is an article about ideas and the sharing of knowledge, something Wikipedia excels at. It is a look back to find the ancient ancestor of Wikipedia, where the idea of sharing information began. But, before we can look back, we have to know a little about Wikipedia and how in the space of ten years it has impacted the world.

From the Origin of Wikipedia:
Wikipedia is a multilingual, free and an open content encyclopedia project which is operated by Non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Wikipedia’s name is portmanteau of the terms wiki and encyclopedia. Wikipedia was launched in the year 2001 by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales. At present, it is the largest, most popular and the fastest-growing common reference work accessible on the internet. 
From Facts and Figures:
Started in January 2001, The world's fastest-growing, most current, and largest encyclopedia, 6 million articles in over 250 languages. The largest sites are English, German, and French. Created entirely by volunteers. We have no paid editors. One of top five brands in the world [1]. Wikipedia is self-correcting for both content and users. The more eyeballs the higher our accuracy. An estimated 7 billion page views a month.
To see how truly international Wikipedia has become, view the index page of To see how Wikipedia impacts its readers, and for real numbers, go to the page where Wikipedia keeps stats on the readers of articles. Wikipedia article traffic statistics.

But, this article is not about Wikipedia. Rather, it is about the idea that idea sharing is the best way to gather and disseminate information. The free sharing of information is not a new idea. One only has to think back to the organization of colleges and universities where teachers and students gather to remember that learning and teaching is a worthy endeavor. Wikipedia records that the distinction of the first university goes to The University of Bologna, which adopted an academic charter, the Constitutio Habita, in 1158 or 1155, guaranteeing the right of a traveling scholar to unhindered passage in the interests of education. The idea of speaking one's mind freely and without fear of punishment must have been a welcome thought. One must remember that heresies were punished by swiftly and extremely by secular and religious institutions alike.

Universities might have taken credit for being the first Wikipedia but for the fact that ideas could not be widely published and disseminated. Scholorship during the Renaissance was confined to the scholars themselves and the few princes who could afford the hand copied and embellished books that were transcribed one book at a time.

The first Wikipedia

The idea of the first Wikipedia would have to wait, and two events combined to make it possible. First was the expansion of travel in during the 1400's that opened up new worlds to European traders. Thus, the Portuguese who rounded the Cape of Good Hope found a new route to the East Indies. And Holland built its maritime trade on that fact. Second, Christopher Columbus discovered America, even if he did not then realize it, and made possible the discovery of new riches and new colonies. The second event was Johann Gutenberg's invention, the Chinese would say reinvention, of the printing press.

History had arrived at the point where a middle class had the money to spend and for books and industry had the means of producing them cheap enough.

In my opinion, the Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales award of being the first Wikipedia inventor goes to Abraham Ortels or Ortelius as he is more commonly known. He was born in Antwerp, Holland and died there in 1598. He was in the right place at the right time and he possessed the skills that made it possible to create a new and modern atlas of the world. Consider that the last time an atlas of the world had been completed was Ptolemy's atlas in 150 AD.

The incentive for Ortelius' venture was money. Unlike Wikipedia, Ortelius would have to sing for his supper and it was necessary that someone would pay for his work. And the success of the venture would again depend on the public's purchase of printed volumes.

Ortelius made up a volume of about thirty maps. The patron of this venture was a Dutchman by the name of Hooftman. He needed the maps so that he could decide on the safest and best routes for his merchant ships to travel. Commerce and capitalism then as now was the driving force behind invention and innovation.

What made Ortelius' project Wikipedia-like was the manner in which he proceeded. He was talkative and he was collaborative. Thus, he spoke to Mercator, the most famous of cartographers, and to others about reducing the size of their maps to something that could be easily handled and printed. Then, like Wikipedia he developed a Commons sort of idea, getting the permission of cartographers to use their maps in his publications. The process took ten years to complete, but by May of 1570, the first modern geographical atlas was issued.

The atlas was a commercial success. The atlas was made up of sheets folded once, in folio, and contained 35 leaves of text and 53 copperplate maps. Again, wikipedia-like, Ortelius included 87 names of geographers who he had consulted or used as sources. The first publication was sold out within three months, and a second publication followed with an errata sheet and minor changes. These changes often came from the public itself as both the Illuminati and the ordinary public sent him their own maps or wrote in with helpful suggestions of how to improve the atlas.

By being honest with his readers, inviting criticism, sharing ideas, and corrections, Ortelius gets the honor of being the first Wikipedia. By the time Ortelius died in 1598, the atlas was published in at least 28 editions in the languages of Latin, Dutch, Spanish, German, and French.

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