Profiles In Badassery: Howard G. "Ward" Cunningham

I am a product of my generation. I get bored easily and spend way too much time on the computer. Because of that, today's subject of our weekly Profile in Badassery is the savior from hours of boredom, especially while at work. You see, I am an addict of Wikipedia. I have this giant file cabinet in my head entitled "useless shit" that constantly needs to be filled with new stuff. I'm also a history buff, specifically World War II (which was one of my favorite classes at Purdue). As a result, I am constantly on Wikipedia, following from link to link and learning all kinds of useless shit to fill my short attention span.

I have a Purdue grad to thank for this addiction. Howard G. "Ward" Cunningham, a computer programmer from Purdue, developed the first wiki. This led not just to Wikipedia, but to Wookiepedia, Grand Theft Wiki, and every other wiki for pretty much any TV show, movie, or other pop culture. Cunningham is a badass because now any type of knowledge I desire is not only at my fingertips, but if I spot a mistake I can even change it! Hopefully he'll find this page and create the Hammer & Rails Wikipedia entry.

Cunningham's background:

Ward Cunningham was born on May 26, 1949, and came to Purdue in the 60's to study both electrical engineering and computer science. He earned a bachelor's in interdisciplinary engineering with both fields, and stayed in West Lafayette to earn a Master's degree in computer science. I like to think of myself as computer savvy, but this guy can actually program a computer to do stuff, where as I use my laptop mostly to surf the internet and use Microsoft Word. I am sure my laptop is made for people like him, and it is merely bored whenever I use it.

Here is what Cunningham had to say about his programming background:

Going back to one thing I learned in my high school days was when the computer I was using came with a manual on how to learn computer programming. Halfway through my working on it, the second manual showed up, showing how it all works. I'd learned from the first manual how to write an "if" statement. But in the second manual, I had an "aha" moment, about how there was interchangeability of all the parts. The language of computers is systematic and generative. The leap was from problems to be solved by a computer / statements that will solve those problems to an unbounded world of things that can be created by combinations of statements.

At one time when the telegraph was king, the morse operators were the "cool guys" like web engineers at the peak of the dotcom bubble. Originally it was designed to be printed, but the paper jammed a lot, so the operators learned they could understand it just by listening, through sound alone. I wrote a program that would teach morse code the same way using a feedback teaching method. Even today it has 30 downloads/day.

After leaving Purdue he founded his own company, Cunningham & Cunningham, a small consultancy firm that specializes in object-oriented programming. Over time they have written a number of papers and web pages. Cunningham was one of the guys that saw what the World Wide Web was going to be, and he probably got a good idea about it from Purdue's very early ARPANET.

Cunningham has worked as an engineer for a variety of other companies, but easily his largest claim to fame is when he created the Wiki concept in 1994. Back then I was merely a 15-year old that was fascinated with America Online and the fact that I could talk to girls anywhere in the country with the great icebreaker of A/S/L. While I was busy building an internet harem that would eventually lead to me meeting Mrs. T-Mill, Cunningham was busy coming up with the concept of the wiki:

The history of wikis dates from 1994, when Ward Cunningham invented the concept and gave it its name (he gave the name "WikiWikiWeb" to both the wiki, which ran on his company's website at c2.com, and the wiki software that powered it). c2.com 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 1994, 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.

Since I am lazy and not the nerd I thought I was (hence, I don't get a lot of the technical details), here is some more on the first wiki:

Ward Cunningham started developing the WikiWikiWeb in 1994 as a supplement to the Portland Pattern Repository, a website containing documentation about Design Patterns, a particular approach to object-oriented programming.[4]

The WikiWikiWeb was intended as a collaborative database, in order to make the exchange of ideas between programmers easier; it was dedicated to "People, Projects and Patterns".[4] Cunningham wrote the software to run it using the Perl programming language. He considered calling the software "quick-web", but instead named it using the Hawaiian word "wiki-wiki", which means "quick-quick" or "very quick",[4] based on his memory of the Wiki Wiki Shuttle at Honolulu International Airport.

Cunningham installed a prototype of the software on his company Cunningham & Cunningham's website c2.com. In an email to Cunningham on 6 November 1994, the server administrator Randy Bush wrote: "You will find the web stuff started and running, but rather content-free. It is in the directory /usr/local/etc/httpd/htdocs. You can send folk to ... http://c2.com." Cunningham replied: "Actually, a higher priority for me is completing a first cut at my repository."[5]

On March 16, 1995, when the site was functioning, Cunningham sent to a colleague the following email:

Steve - I've put up a new database on my web server and I'd like you to take a look. It's a web of people, projects and patterns accessed through a cgi-bin script. It has a forms based authoring capability that doesn't require familiarity with html. I'd be very pleased if you would get on and at least enter your name in RecentVisitors. I'm asking you because I think you might also add some interesting content. I'm going to advertise this a little more widely in a week or so. The URL is http://c2.com/cgi-bin/wiki. Thanks and best regards. - Ward [5]

Cunningham dates the official start of WikiWikiWeb as March 25, 1995.[4] On May 1, 1995 he sent an email about the website to a number of programmers, which caused an increase in participation.[4] This note was posted to the "Patterns" listserv, a group of software developers gathered under the name "The Hillside Group" to develop Erich Gamma's use of object-oriented patterns. Cunningham had noticed that the older contents of the listserv tended to get buried under the more recent posts, and he proposed instead to collect ideas in a set of pages which would be collectively edited. Cunningham's post stated: "The plan is to have interested parties write web pages about the People, Projects and Patterns that have changed the way they program." He added: "Think of it as a moderated list where anyone can be moderator and everything is archived. It's not quite a chat, still, conversation is possible."[6]

Naturally, it has taken off from there. There are wiki's all over the place, with Wikipedia being the most famous one. Not only do you have Wikipedia, but you have wikis for stuff like Star Wars, Star Trek, 24, The Office, and pretty much everything else out there that is cool. We have a Boilermaker badass to thank for them too.

I know that creating this wonderful tool isn't quite as cool as walking on the moon or landing on the Hudson without power, but Cunningham has created something that is used in virtually every country around the world. If a country has the internet, there is a good chance someone has contributed to a wiki from there. If that isn't worthy of being a badass, I don't what is. Thank you, Ward Cunningham for saving me from boredom and preventing me from doing any actual work.


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