Webcams and video streaming represent a major slice of web traffic and billions of dollars in business, but it can all be traced back to one source: a humble pot of coffee in a lab in Cambridge. No, really. Video calls, TV streaming, legions of YouTube content creators—all owe a debt of gratitude to a handful of computer engineers who just wanted to monitor their coffee supply.
University of Cambridge, 1991. The main computer lab was called the Trojan room, and it was the home of a truly precious resource: a coffee pot. But not all the computer scientists working at Cambridge worked in the Trojan room. They also worked on different floors or even different buildings, and if they’d make the trip to the Trojan room to refuel on coffee only to find an empty pot, they’d be very disappointed indeed.
That’s when computer scientist Quentin Stafford-Fraser, best known for writing the original VNC client and server for Windows, had a brainwave. He rigged up a camera and pointed it at the coffee pot. His colleague, Paul Jardetzky, wrote software that allowed them to pipe images from the camera to their internal computer network. The image was greyscale, only 128×128 px, and only updated three times per minute, but it did the trick.
Dr Martyn Johnson was another computer scientist at Cambridge who used the coffee pot, but sadly, he wasn’t connected to the internet network. However, in 1993, web browsers gained the ability to display images. Johnson decided to write a short script, only twelve lines, that sent the most recent image of the coffee pot to whomever requested it. On November 22, the Trojan room’s coffee pot went live on the internet and could be viewed by anyone around the world.
The Trojan office coffee pot became an early viral hit. Early internet users found the whole thing funny, ingenious, or both. Millions of hits came from all over the world. Users asked if the light could be kept on at night so they could see the coffee pot and visitors to Cambridge would even ask about it.
Ten years later, though, and the usefulness of the world’s first camera had run its course. The software was getting old and unmanageable and the scientists wanted to get rid of the hardware keeping the whole thing going. On August 22, 2001, despite the protests of fans, the camera was turned off. The event made the front pages of the London Times and the Washington Post. It was also covered in Der Spiegel, Wired, and the Guardian, amongst others. The last coffee pot to be featured on the camera is actually in a museum in Germany.
Maybe it’s not surprising that computer scientists, who’ve named one of their most important languages java, were passionate enough about a full coffee pot to be inspired to invent such a seminal piece of technology. Of course, on the Internet, today’s breakthrough is tomorrow’s old news. In 2012, Dr Stafford-Fraser told the BBC:
“In 10 years it had gone from being a wacky new idea, to a novelty that a reasonable number of people knew about, to a widely viewed icon of the early web, to an historic artefact, and then to something that people were mourning over when it was no longer there. Only on the internet can that sort of thing happen in just a few years.”
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