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How A Coffee Pot Inspired The First Webcam

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Coffee Inspires Webcams


Back in 1991, when the World Wide Web was little more than a pipe dream, some technicians at The University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory were working on ATM networks and related research. Consisting of poor academics, the team of about 15 people only had one coffee machine and as you could imagine the hard working technicians went through a lot of coffee, and when a pot was brewed it did not last very long.

Some members of the team resided in parts of the building where they had to navigate several flights of stairs to get to the coffee pot, a journey that could prove to be an exercise in futility when someone else had emptied the pot. This disruption to the progress of Computer Science research obviously caused us some distress, and so XCoffee was born.

The students had access to several racks of simple computers used for reasarch, and one of them  had a video frame-grabber attached and was not being used at the time.  The impoverished hackers 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.

trojan-room-coffeeOne of the technicians then wrote a ‘server’ program, which ran on that machine and captured images of the pot every few seconds at various resolutions, and another wrote a ‘client’ program which everybody could run, which connected to the server and displayed a greyscale, icon-sized image of the pot in the corner of the screen, that was updated approximately 3 times per minute. The researchers have said  “This system only took us a day or so to construct but was rather more useful than anything else I wrote while working on networks. It also made a better topic of conversation at dinner parties than ATM protocols.”

The first published record of XCoffee came when Bob Metcalfe wrote about it in Comm Week on 27th January 1992 after visiting the lab, and inspired by this success, there was talk of other monitoring applications using low-frame-rate video. Systems such as XSandwichVan and XPrinterOutputTray were mooted. Eventually, the frame grabber died until one day two technicians named Daniel Gordon and Martyn Johnson 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.

Sadly, the Trojan Room Coffee machine was finally switched off at 0954 UTC on Wednesday 22nd August 2001.

The final image, which shows the server being switched off, is here, however, the Trojan Room Coffee Pot web page still exists. Visit http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/coffee/coffee.html

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Tags: Coffee Facts, Coffee Makers, XCoffee

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