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Christopher Mims

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How the Wiki Was Born of Apple and the Mac

Bill Atkinson invented everything from the menu bar to hypercard–the program that inspired the first wiki.

  • March 27, 2011

The wiki is a funny thing: unlike the blog, which is a bastard child of the human need to record life’s events and the exhibitionistic tendencies the Internet encourages, there is nothing all that obvious about it.

Ward Cunningham, the programmer who invented the modern wiki, has said that this is precisely what made it so compelling – it was one of those too-obvious ideas that doesn’t really make sense until you’ve seen it in action. To judge by the level of discourse in the average well-trafficked comment thread, to put a page on the internet and to invite all to edit it is a recipe for defacement and worse. Yet it works – in part due to its occasionally ant-democratic nature.

Unlike the first weblogs, which were personal diaries, the very first wiki – it still exists – is devoted to software development. But where did its creator get the idea to create a wiki (then called a WikiWiki) in the first place?

Hypercard.

It’s a name that will mean a great deal to anyone who can identify this creature:

Moof!

Hypercard was the world wide web before the web even existed. Only it wasn’t available across a network, and instead of hypertext, it was merely hypermedia – in other words, different parts of the individual ‘cards’ one could create with it were linkable to other cards.

The most famous application ever to be built with Hypercard is the original version of the computer game Myst. (Which, like seemingly every other bit of puzzle, arcade and adventure game nostalgia, has been reconstituted on the iPhone.)

Hypercard made it easy to build “stacks” of graphically rich (for the time, anyway) “cards” that could be interlinked. Cunningham built a stack in Hypercard that documented computer programmers and their ideas, and, later, programming patterns. The web allowed him to realize an analogous “stack” in a public space; the last step was to allow anyone to add to it.

Bill Atkinson, the Apple programmer who invented Hypercard, also invented MacPaint, the QuickDraw toolbox that the original Macintosh used for graphics, and the Menu bar. He is literally one of those foundational programmers whose ideas – or at least their expression – have influenced millions, and have descendants on practically every computer in existence.

Which means Atkinson gave birth to a system elegant enough to presage the world wide web, inspire the first Wiki (without which Wikipedia, begun in 2001, would have been impossible) and give rise to the most haunting computer game of a generation. Both Atkinson and Cunningham are links in a long chain of inspiration and evolution stretching back to the earliest notions of hypertext.

And that’s how Apple – or specifically Bill Atkinson – helped give birth to the wiki. Which is 16 years old today!

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