Cover photo

Picture yourself building the first webcam to see if there's any coffee left

The start of live-streaming on the web at Cambridge University. Many important inventions come out of the need for pure convenience.

gm creators!

I hope everyone had a great weekend 😎

Today, I'm covering the story of the first ever webcam known as The Trojan Coffee Cam.

The key takeaway is that most important inventions in tech typically start as a fun experiment, not a grand roadmap.

Today at a Glance:

  1. Who drank my damn coffee?

  2. Andreessen's iconic proposal

  3. Historical Item

  4. πŸ”‘ Key Takeaway πŸ’‘

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Who drank my damn coffee?

For this story, let's go back in time to 1991. Picture yourself as one of the earliest computer science nerds hacking away at a research lab in Cambridge University.

That's exactly where the first webcam was implemented. The funniest part of the story is the reason the camera was even set up in the first place.

Most of the researchers in Cambridge's nascent CS department worked out of The Trojan Room. This is where the coffee machine was located β˜• Anyone working in the room could take a quick peek across the room and see if the pot was empty or not.

But there were a set of developers scatted across other parts of the building that would make the trek to the trojan room only to discover that the coffee was....finished ☠️

...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. - Quentin

In order to fix this issue, two researchers named Paul Jardetzky and Quentin Fraser decided to point a camera at a coffee pot and write a client that allowed the image to be displayed on everyone's computer screens. The images were static and captured every few minutes.

The client would display a tiny black and white image of the pot and lived in the corner of the computer screen. That way, anyone who was not in the main research lab could check if there was enough coffee before climbing a few flights of stairs πŸ˜‚

CommWeek - Bob Metcalfe

The add-ons to this fun project are simple yet so cool to see just being brainstormed as innovative features for the time:

Why not extend XCoffee to image-process its pictures of the coffee pot so that it can sound an alarm when the pot nears empty? Why not let users reserve a cup of coffee while running down the tower cup in hand? The possibilities are endless.

One thing to remember here is the year... we're in late 1991 so at this point the web didn't even have capabilities for images yet!

The static images above don't count as a webcam, that was just the v1 but ended up sticking around for a few years.

Andreessen's Iconic Proposal

Then in February 1993, Marc Andreessen sends the e-mail below to the nerds on WWW-Talk: the original web forum where early internet pioneers discussed the future of the browser.

Web History

By March, Mosaic had released support for embedded images.

This got the folks at Cambridge excited...

"When the browser connected to the web server and asked for a particular image, suppose the web server didn't give back the same one every time?"

So Dan Gordon and Martyn Johnson decide to modify the original system and allow it to respond to web requests. Additionally, they changed the photo camera to a Olivetti video camera and used a frame grabber in order to convert analog video signals into digital images.

This marks the start of the first ever webcam. It took them a single afternoon and a few cups of coffee to get it set up. No roadmap, no grand strategy, etc.

Just a fun experiment!

Now that the coffee pot was viewable on a web browser, it wasn't limited to just the coffee addicts in London but rather to anyone who had access to the web.

Very quickly, the live stream started to get a ton of media coverage and interest from people around the world. The idea that you could go on the web and watch exactly what was happening in a different part of the world at any given moment was fascinating! And the fact that it was a coffee pot made it even wackier.

This was also when people started realizing that it was possible to integrate the new digital world being built with the physical world. These days, we take the concept of live streaming, Youtube, and video in general for granted on the web. But in the early days, that concept was unheard of.

By 1996, the Trojan coffee pot livestream had hit its millionth view! That's when journalist Steve Farrar comes out with his famous article comparing the coffee livestream to the most visited tourist spot, King's College Chapel, in East England. Take a guess as to which one had more visitors.

Historical Item

By the end of the decade, web streams had become common thanks to the researchers at Cambridge.

In 2001, the computer science department had grown large enough to the point where they had to move to another lab. That meant the end of the livestream :(

In August of that year, the coffee pot had been sold for 3500 euros and the coffee pot cam was finally shut off on August 22nd, 2001.


I also wanted to give a quick honorable mention to the Netscape Fishcam, which was credited with being one of the earliest webcam as well. It was basically a livestream of the fish tank at the Netscape HQ. It started off as a quick experiment to test video streaming but ended becoming an internet phenomenon.


πŸ”‘ Key TakeawayπŸ’‘

Okay, so what's the lesson learned from this story?

Well, I think Quentin sums it up perfectly with this one-liner:

When convenience was the mother of invention.

The beauty of this story is that the researchers at Cambridge were just having fun trying out new tools available to them! They loved coffee and wanted to use technology to make things simpler with the coffee machine at their lab.

Many breakthrough technologies and popular products have emerged from side projects or experiments initially meant just for fun or to solve a minor inconvenience. For example:

  • Slack started as an internal tool for Stewart's gaming company to better communicate

  • Twitter started as a side project within the podcast company Odeo where Jack Dorsey worked

If you are a builder in the tech space today, maybe it's worth thinking about your day to day.

What minor inconveniences are you facing that can be quickly solved with a hack? There's a good chance others are facing the same issue.

While we try to think of grand ideas, we tend to overlook the simple solutions that are actually working.

It's often the unexpected output of research that's the most interesting.

Comment below with other examples of fun stories in tech that started off as a joke or fun side project but ended up becoming a global phenomenon!

By learning tech history, it's easier to identify tricks & techniques that can help founders approach the idea maze even today.

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