[OOPSLA] Where Wikis come from

I was lucky enough to meet and spend some time with Ward Cunningham at OOPSLA this year. I also heard him present in a big hall. If you are a Wiki fan then you know that Ward is the one who invented the concept.

What seems to be a little less well known is how the idea evolved, where it came from. I am sure it's written up somewhere. but I thought I'd write down my own idiosynchratic understanding of the story.

Ward was involved in the early days of the Design Patterns movement, which seems to have it's own roots in the OOPSLA conference. So here's the story.

At some gathering it was noted that there ought to be a central repository of all the patterns that had been invented to date and a way for new ones to be added.

Ward kindly voluteered to build and maintain this repository. This was in the early days of the Web, and it seemed like the logical medium to do this in. So Ward set out to create a web site to be the repository. It still exists!

The problem was that no one really knew HTML at the time. So they would send Ward emails with ideas for Patterns to be added to the repository and Ward would then be editing those emails into HTML and then posting the pages. This didn't scale too well.

Because the agreed upon form of a Pattern description was fairly consistent, Ward decided to write a script to process the text he received automatically into HTML. In fact he added some helpful formalisms like a '*" for a bullet and so on. He asked people to follow this to make his life of adding the new pages to the repository easier. See where this is headed?

Ward was able to run his script and process the properly formatted Pattern descriptions and turn them into HTML pages. This saved a lot of time maintaining the web site with all the patterns.

It occurred to Ward that he could automate this even further if he had a page on his site where someone could submit their nicely formatted text. The site would then automatically run the script, generate the html and store it in the right place.

And so proto-wiki
was born. Of course this Wiki-markup is only one of the three (IMHO) seminal features of Wikis. The other two are: the total lack of access control and the ability to refer to something before it exists. More on those later.

So that's the story, as I heard it. I thought it might be of interest to you.
Posted on November 6, 2004 and filed under Technology.