When coffee & convenience were the mothers of invention: the roots of the Webcam

Having spent a large chunk of the last three weeks on Zoom (shares up 30%), Skype and the like, whilst drinking lashings of coffee, it is interesting to reflect on the device that has made this all possible and its humble origins in my alma mater, Cambridge.

The inspiration for the world’s first webcam came from a coffee pot next to the Trojan Room in the old Computer Laboratory of Cambridge University. In 1991 the computer scientists working there rigged up an early form of webcam (in greyscale) so those further from the room could monitor the level of coffee in the pot and stop missing out on the black stuff. At first it was an internal system running at a low frame rate but after a while (Nov 1993) someone thought to connect it to the World Wide Web and it became something of an early internet star (the web equivalent of a silent movie star). People from round the globe checked out the coffee levels in the lab. Because they were on different time zones a lamp was introduced to cover the evening and night.

Trojan_Room_coffee_pot_xcoffee

XCoffee was the client software written by QSF

The coffee pot was retired after a decade in 2001 (it was actually the fourth or fifth) and bought by a German magazine (Der Spiegel) at auction for a bit over three grand.

The original programmers were Quentin Stafford-Fraser and Paul Jardetzky. Daniel Gordon and Martin Johnson connected it to the WWW. Here is QSF’s account, beautifully titled ‘When convenience was the mother of invention’.

The way this humble invention has transformed our lives in the last month is as astonishing as the rest of this surreality. I have used my (flakey) webcam in these weeks to join my mum on her 80th birthday; participate in a seminar on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; help deliver a documentary-making workshop over three days (that were supposed to be in Copenhagen); last night, hang out with some friends, associates and strangers/new friends whilst sprawled on my bed in the semi-darkness; have a meeting which opened with a live song; start writing a book with a close colleague; work with some filmmakers in Prague and L.A. and Thailand; have our regular book group meeting (online for the first time). So big up to Quentin, Paul, Daniel and Martin – and Cambridge. And coffee.

Trojan_Room_coffee_pot_xvcoffee

The last shot: a hand switching off the server

P.S. For a great book on coffee and creativity, whilst you’ve got all this time on your hands, try Patti Smith’s M Train.

“In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all.”

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