The history of wikis dates from 1994, when Ward Cunningham invented the concept and gave it its name. thus became the first wiki, or a website with pages that can be edited via the browser, with a version history for each page. Before 1995, however, there were several historical antecedents to wikis, including Vannevar Bush's proposed "memex" system in 1945, the collaborative hypertext database ZOG in 1972, and the Apple hypertext system HyperCard in 1987; though the creation of true wikis only became possible with the development of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s.

Cunningham created the first wiki in 1994, and released it in 1995, in order to facilitate communication between software developers. He chose "WikiWikiWeb" as the name based on his memories of the "Wiki Wiki Shuttle" at Honolulu International Airport, and because "wiki" is the Hawaiian word for "quick". The website met with success, and began to spawn alternative wiki applications and websites over the next five years. In the meantime, the first wiki, now known as "WardsWiki," evolved as features were added to the software and as the growing body of users developed a unique "wiki culture". By 2000, WardsWiki had developed a great deal of content outside of its original stated purpose, which led to the spinoff of content into sister sites, most notably, MeatballWiki.

The website [[1]], a free content encyclopedia, was launched in January, 2001, and quickly became the most popular wiki, as it remains to this day. There now exist millions of wiki websites.

Clones of the WikiWikiWeb software began to be developed as soon as Ward Cunningham made the Wiki Base software available online. TWiki was created in Perl by Peter Thoeny in 1998, and was was aimed at large corporate intranets. PhpWiki, created by Steve Wainstead in 1999, was written in PHP. UseModWiki, a flat-file wiki written in Perl, was developed from 1999 to 2000 by Clifford Adams. It introduced the square bracket syntax for linking words that was later adopted by many other wiki engines, including MediaWiki. MoinMoin, created in Python by Jürgen Hermann and Thomas Waldmann in mid-2000, is a flat-file wiki with a simple code base, but many possible extensions.

Wikipedia originally used the UseMod software. The MediaWiki program was written for Wikipedia in 2002 by Lee Daniel Crocker, based on the user interface design of an earlier PHP wiki engine developed by Magnus Manske. One of the earliest differences between MediaWiki and other wiki engines was the use of freely-formatted links instead of links in CamelCase. MediaWiki provides specialized syntax to support rich content, such as rendering mathematical formulas using LaTeX, graphical plotting, image galleries and thumbnails, and Exif metadata. Extensions to MediaWiki, such as those developed by Wikia, have added WYSIWYG support and social networking integration.

The period from 2004 to 2006 saw an explosion in interest in both wikis generally and Wikipedia in particular, and both started to become household terms. Corporations, organizations and other communities began to make increasing use of wikis. Many of the wiki-based sites, technologies and events that dominate today were started during that period.

2004 saw the launch of two major proprietary wiki applications: Atlassian's Confluence in March and JotSpot in October. They joined Socialtext, which had begun in 2002. All three launched with major corporate backing and venture capital, and geared themselves heavily toward corporate usage. JotSpot was bought by Google in 2006 and was modified to become Google Sites which launched in 2008.

In October 2004, the site Wikicities launched, co-founded by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Wikimedia Foundation board member Angela Beesley. Wikicities was among the first wiki farms, and the first one to be heavily publicized. In March 2006, it changed its name to Wikia. Wikia remains the best-known and most popular wiki farm.

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