Ah, webcams. Great for mid-pandemic game nights, extremely awkward remote work meetings, and being secretly watched by creepers and pedophiles while we’re in our PJs. Originally, however, they were invented for something much more prosaic: coffee.
Well, we say “invented” – in fact, the first ever webcam sort of happened by accident. The “Trojan Room Coffee Pot”, as it was known, was a live feed of (you guessed it) a coffee pot, and it wasn’t initially online at all.
“It started back in the dark days of 1991, when the World Wide Web was little more than a glint in CERN's eye,” wrote Quentin Stafford-Fraser, the computer scientist who, along with fellow researcher Paul Jardetzky, originally created the coffee pot cam.
“I was working on ATM networks in a part of the Computer Lab known as the Trojan Room, (a name which, perhaps, causes some amusement to American readers),” he explained in his 1995 “biography” of the pot. “There were about fifteen of us involved in related research and, being poor, impoverished academics, we only had one coffee filter machine between us, which lived in the corridor just outside the Trojan Room.”
That was a problem, however, because coffee is basically the lifeblood of the academic world. And when there’s only one pot for an entire department, some people are bound to lose out.
“Some [researchers] lived in other parts of the building and had to navigate several flights of stairs to get to the coffee pot,” explained Stafford-Fraser; “a trip which often proved fruitless if the all-night hackers of the Trojan Room had got there first.”
Without intervention, they realized, the whole future of computer science might suffer – thus, the program XCoffee was born.
“We fixed a camera to a retort stand, pointed it at the coffee machine in the corridor, and ran the wires under the floor to the frame-grabber in the Trojan Room,” Stafford-Fraser recalled. “Jardetzky […] then 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.”
But it wasn’t until November 1993 that the Trojan Room Coffee Pot truly earned its place in the history of the World Wide Web. That was when Martyn Johnson, another caffeine-hungry computer scientist who was not connected to the internal Cambridge servers and therefore couldn’t run XCoffee, took the pioneering program online for the first time.
“I just built a little script around the captured images,” he told the BBC in 2012. “The first version was probably only 12 lines of code, probably less, and it simply copied the most recent image to the requester whenever it was asked for.”
Despite the rather monotonous subject matter – “The image was only updated about three times a minute, but that was fine because the pot filled rather slowly,” Stafford-Fraser wrote, “and it was only greyscale, which was also fine, because so was the coffee” – the Trojan Room Coffee Pot went early-90s viral, with nerds from across the globe tuning in to check the status of the Cambridge caffeine reserves.
“I think we were all a little bewildered by it all to be honest,” Johnson told the BBC.
Unfortunately, the pot’s fame was not to last. Try to access the feed today, and you’ll be met with an apology note stating that the webcam is no longer broadcasting. The final image of the historic program – an anonymous researcher’s hand turning the system off forever – was sent out at 09:54 UTC on Wednesday, August 22, 2001.
And the reason for its demise? As stoically practical as its creation.
“The software was becoming completely unmaintainable,” Johnson explained to the BBC. “Research software is not always of the highest quality and we simply wanted to throw away the machines that were supporting [it].”
No longer in active service, the Trojan Room coffee pot was sold in an online auction, netting the researchers of the Computer Science department a cool £3,350 ($4,095) in the process.
Which, luckily, was probably enough to afford a second coffee machine.