Wikipedia, the largest free encyclopedia in history, turns 23. This is how it was born

Wikipedia turns 23. The most famous online encyclopedia on the planet was born on January 15, 2001, launched in its very first edition in English by founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Today it has more than 55 million entries in over 300 languages, a heritage that has made it the largest encyclopedia ever written and on the web. And it is among the ten most visited sites in the world. Furthermore, Wikipedia in Italian has 2,465,814 registered users (data updated as of 1 January 2024). This is how it was born and how it became what it is now.

The first project: Nupedia

The initial project was that of a free online encyclopedia whose entries were written by volunteer experts through a formal review process, therefore not open to public modifications. Thus “Nupedia” was born on March 9, 2000, from the Bomis company, owner of the search portal of the same name. Jimmy Wales was then CEO of Bomis and Larry Sanger was editor in chief of Nupedia. It is within this service, the site, that a new tool is born: Wikipedia, an idea that will soon take over.

Baptism and the meaning of the name

The name chosen for the new revolutionary encyclopedia literally means “fast culture”. It comes from the Hawaiian term “wiki”, which means “fast”, combined with the suffix of Greek origin “-pedia” (education). The idea on which it is based seems crazy: unlike Nupedia, all users can intervene on the entries and modify them, therefore there is no longer any use of a narrow circle of selected experts. But it is precisely this intuition that turbocharges the development of this encyclopedia.

Success on the web

Wikipedia was therefore launched in its first autonomous version on 15 January 2001 with the site The edition is in English and in May it begins to gather many registered users. Over the course of the year, editions are developed in French, German, Catalan, Spanish, Swedish, Portuguese and, at the end of the year, Italian. After 12 months of life, the encyclopedia already has almost 20 thousand entries, in 18 editions in different languages. The editions became 26 in 2002, 46 in 2003, and 161 at the end of 2004. The Nupedia project failed and closed definitively in 2003, after having suffered a very slow growth rate, which due to the complicated revision processes had caused it to publish just 24 entries. For opposite reasons, Wikipedia has now exploded. Thus was born the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization, to which Jimmy Wales ceded all rights.

The largest encyclopedia ever written

The development of the free encyclopedia is exponential. In the first two years it grows at the rate of hundreds of new entries per day, in 2003 the English edition reaches 100 thousand entries and in 2004, in just one year, it doubles in size and continues to grow at a rate of 3 thousand entries per day . In September 2004 there were already one million entries. In 2007 the English edition had two million entries: Wikipedia officially became the largest encyclopedia ever written, surpassing the Yongle encyclopedia (1407), which had held the record for exactly 600 years.

Wales: “A free encyclopedia for all”

Today the Wikimedia Foundation has created numerous complementary projects such as Wiktionary, Wikibooks, Wikisource, Wikispecies, Wikiquote, Wikinotizie, Wikiversity and Wikivoyage. And there is a network of national associations connected to the association to contribute to the management of the enormous flow that generated the project. Among these there is also Wikimedia Italia. Jimmy Wales called Wikipedia “an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest quality possible to every single person on the planet in his or her own language.”