For better or worse, Wikipedia is now the most extensive single reference work ever composed. Since its launch on Jan. 15, 2001, Wikipedia has grown to roughly 20 million articles in 282 languages. (The English version of Wikipedia is the largest, comprising roughly one-sixth the total volume of articles.) Wikipedia is consistently one of the 10 most visited sites on the Internet, regardless of which service is doing the ranking.

Not bad for Plan B.

Often lost in the accolades (and criticism) of Wikipedia is an acknowledgement that it was a fallback position for a much more (oxymoron alert) traditional online encyclopedia. Wikipedia founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger first collaborated on Nupedia, a free online encyclopedia written by volunteer experts whose work was peer-reviewed by accredited authorities. In its three-year history, Nupedia managed to shepherd just 24 original articles through its strenuous review process.

Frustrated with the Nupedia’s lack of adoption, Wales and Sanger ported a copy of Nupedia over to a free wiki version, to which anyone could submit or edit articles. The Wikipedia proved immediately popular, and began to accrue surprisingly good content at a rapid pace. By 2003, Nupedia was shut down in favor of its free successor. By 2007, Wikipedia was the most extensive encyclopedia ever written, displacing a reference work that had held that title for nearly 600 years.


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From the year 1408 until 2007, the Yongle Encyclopedia was the longest single reference work ever composed. Commissioned by the Chinese emperor Yongle in 1403, the eponymous encyclopedia included nearly 23,000 manuscript rolls arranged in over 11,000 volumes. That’s about 40 cubic meters of parchment, containing over 370 million Chinese characters. It was designed to cover every scrap of knowledge held by the Confucian canon and the 15th century Chinese Imperial court, which was no small sum of information.

Perhaps more staggering than its sheer size is that it took the Yongle Encyclopedia less time to reach completion than it took Wikipedia to displace it. Over 2,000 professional scholars worked for five consecutive years to deliver the Yongle Encyclopedia — and they wrote it by hand. (The manuscript was simply too large and cumbersome to be block printed.) It took Wikipedia six years and the full power of the crowdsourced Internet to displace the Yongle Encyclopedia in size. To be fair, though, the Yongle authors didn’t have to worry about documenting every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Sadly, no complete copy of the Yongle Encyclopedia survives. A series of palace fires destroyed the originals and copies of all but 400 of the initial volumes, though surviving master indices do give exact measures of the encyclopedia’s total size. Still, the Yongle Encyclopedia has not fallen entirely out of print; an abridged 100-volume copy of the original Chinese text was published in 1962. It’s true, just ask Wikipedia.

That’s not just some reverential resurrection of reference materials, it’s a bibliographically mind-blowing burst of Geek Trivia.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

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This week’s quibble comes from the Dec. 9, 2011 edition of Geek Trivia, which asked what onboard Christmas gifts did the Apollo 8 astronauts leave famously unopened?

Member jpnagle59 recounted a personal anecdote that may have explained the astronauts’ anti-Santa stance:

I met these great men after about 3 years from that flight. They all seemed to me to be a very level headed gentlemen…but there was an underlying sense of humor with these guys…One said to me after I asked the question–‘…what would you have done if something had gone wrong on the Apollo 8 flight that would have prevented you from coming back home?…’ He smiled and said…’…we had special rocket fuel to do one of two things, zoom our way back to Earth…or take a one way trip to Mars…it’s classified son…’…….I wonder if the Brandy was the ‘secret’ fuel?… I do hope it was the good stuff…

Thanks for the inside scoop, and keep those quibbles coming!