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An empty coffee pot inspired the webcam

webcam inspired by a coffee potLook at the laptop, mobile, or tablet you’re using to read this. Chances are you’ll find that little dot that we’ve come to know is a camera. Whatever device you use, that camera can probably function as a webcam. We take them for granted. But did you know the first webcam was created back in 1991 when computer scientists at the University of Cambridge grew tired of finding an empty coffee pot?

The break room where the coffee pot was located was in a lab called the Trojan room. Apparently this was quite a walk for some of the scientists. After suffering too many disappointing trips to find an empty coffee pot, they rigged up a camera that took pictures of the coffee pot three times per minute. Then they made those pictures available on the internal network.

The scientists were thrilled at minimising their fruitless trips to the coffee pot.

This worked well for the resident scientists, but not everyone working at Cambridge was on the internal network. In 1993, Dr Martyn Johnson was studying the web back when browsers first started displaying images. He wrote a little bit of code for the server that made the latest image available on the web. Now everyone could see the state of the coffee pot.

And everyone did. Thanks to some early news coverage, hundreds of thousands of people viewed the coffee pot before it was retired in 2003. Cambridge even offered tours of the area so people could see the pot in person.

From these humble beginnings came the webcam of today. No programming skills are necessary. You can stream your vacation, late night ramblings, and musical performances- anything you can do in front of your computer or your mobile device.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. In this case, those hard working computer scientists needed their caffeine. And we’ve all benefited from their efforts.

Oliver Burt

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