Webcams are now synonymous with an Orwellian dystopian future, Big Brother’s constant surveillance and privacy invasions.
Although they now have a darker connotation, once webcams were simply technological tools that allowed us to keep in touch with people who were far away and connect with anyone in the world.
That sweet function actually originated as a consequence of an equally charming solution to a very British problem experienced by Cambridge University students back in 1991.
Every day, students at the Faculty of Computer Science and Technology would trek up and down seven flights of stairs on a mission for a sweet cup of coffee, courtesy of a communal machine that sat outside the Trojan Room on the second floor.
Upon arrival, many were disappointed to find the coffee pot empty and faced a long haul back up the stair empty-handed.
A 26-year-old PhD student came up with a clever first world solution to this ultimate first world problem, fashioning a camera pointed directly at the coffee machine which would update the thirsty scientists with the levels of liquid nectar three time every minute.
Writing on the Trojan Coffee Pot‘s very own website, Quentin Stafford-Fraser explained:
It started back in the dark days of 1991, when the World Wide Web was little more than a glint in CERN’s eye. 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). 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. 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.
Some members of the ‘coffee club’ lived in other parts of the building and had to navigate several flights of stairs to get to the coffee pot; a trip which often proved fruitless if the all-night hackers of the Trojan Room had got there first. This disruption to the progress of Computer Science research obviously caused us some distress, and so XCoffee was born.
Paul Jardetzky (now working in California) 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. 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.
The Cambridge University coffee machine gained international stardom, with over 2 million hits on the updating images, according to BBC Cambridgeshire Radio.
On 22 August 2001, the coffee pot was finally switched off after serving the scientists – and modern technology – for over a decade.