The Very First Webcam Was Invented to Keep an Eye on a Coffee Pot at Cambridge University

The inter­net as we know it today began with a cof­fee pot. Despite the ring of exag­ger­a­tion, that claim isn’t actu­al­ly so far-fetched. When most of us go online, we expect some­thing new: often not just some­thing new to read, but some­thing new to watch. This, as those of us past a cer­tain age will recall, was not the case with the ear­ly World Wide Web, con­sist­ing as it most­ly did of sta­t­ic pages of text, updat­ed irreg­u­lar­ly if at all. Younger read­ers will have to imag­ine even that being a cut­ting-edge thrill, but we did­n’t real­ly feel like we were liv­ing in the future until the fall of 1993, when XCof­fee first went live.

This ground­break­ing tech­no­log­i­cal project “start­ed back in the dark days of 1991,” writes co-cre­ator Quentin Stafford-Fras­er, “when the World Wide Web was lit­tle more than a glint in CERN’s eye.” At the time, Stafford-Fras­er was employed as one of fif­teen researchers in the “Tro­jan Room” of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge Com­put­er Lab. “Being poor, impov­er­ished aca­d­e­mics, we only had one cof­fee fil­ter machine between us, which lived in the cor­ri­dor just out­side the Tro­jan Room. How­ev­er, being high­ly ded­i­cat­ed and hard-work­ing aca­d­e­mics, we got through a lot of cof­fee, and when a fresh pot was brewed, it often did­n’t last long.”

It occurred to Stafford-Fras­er to train an unused video cam­era from the Tro­jan Room on the cof­fee pot (and thus the amount of cof­fee avail­able with­in), then con­nect it to a com­put­er, specif­i­cal­ly an Acorn Archimedes. His col­league Paul Jardet­zky “wrote a ‘serv­er’ pro­gram, which ran on that machine and cap­tured images of the pot every few sec­onds at var­i­ous res­o­lu­tions, and I wrote a ‘client’ pro­gram which every­body could run, which con­nect­ed to the serv­er and dis­played an icon-sized image of the pot in the cor­ner of the screen. The image was only updat­ed about three times a minute, but that was fine because the pot filled rather slow­ly, and it was only greyscale, which was also fine, because so was the cof­fee.”

XCof­fee, the result­ing pro­gram, was meant only to pro­vide this much-need­ed infor­ma­tion to Com­put­er Lab mem­bers else­where in the build­ing. But after the release of image-dis­play­ing web browsers in 1993, it found a much wider audi­ence as the world’s first stream­ing web­cam. Stafford-Fraser’s suc­ces­sors “res­ur­rect­ed the sys­tem, treat­ed it to a new frame grab­ber, and made the images avail­able on the World Wide Web. Since then, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple have looked at the cof­fee pot, mak­ing it undoubt­ed­ly the most famous in the world.” Stafford-Fras­er wrote these words in 1995; in the years there­after XCof­fee went on to receive mil­lions of views before its even­tu­al shut­down in 2001.

In the Cen­tre for Com­put­ing His­to­ry video above, Stafford-Fras­er shows the very Olivet­ti cam­era he orig­i­nal­ly used to mon­i­tor the cof­fee lev­el. (He’d pre­vi­ous­ly worked at the Olivet­ti Research Lab­o­ra­to­ry, whose par­ent com­pa­ny also owned Acorn Com­put­ers.) “We could see things at a dis­tance before,” he says. “We could view tele­vi­sion pro­grams, we could look through tele­scopes.” But only after the Tro­jan Room’s cof­fee pot hit the inter­net could we “see what’s hap­pen­ing now, some­where else in the world,” on demand. Thir­ty years after XCof­fee’s devel­op­ment, we’re mes­mer­ized by live-stream­ing stars and sur­round­ed by “smart” home appli­ances, hop­ing for noth­ing so much as way to con­cen­trate on our imme­di­ate sur­round­ings again — to wake up, if you like, and smell the cof­fee.

via Boing­Bo­ing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See Web Cams of Sur­re­al­ly Emp­ty City Streets in Venice, New York, Lon­don & Beyond

Sci-Fi “Por­tal” Con­nects Cit­i­zens of Lublin & Vil­nius, Allow­ing Passers­by Sep­a­rat­ed by 376 Miles to Inter­act in Real Time

George Orwell Pre­dict­ed Cam­eras Would Watch Us in Our Homes; He Nev­er Imag­ined We’d Glad­ly Buy and Install Them Our­selves

The Cof­fee Pot That Fueled Hon­oré de Balzac’s Cof­fee Addic­tion

The Hertel­la Cof­fee Machine Mount­ed on a Volk­swa­gen Dash­board (1959): The Most Euro­pean Car Acces­so­ry Ever Made

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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