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Innovation at Play: Webcam 1.0

The Trojan Room Coffeepot, c.1993

The Uncertain Paternity of Invention

The father of invention must be laziness … or play.*

10 magic points if you already knew that the world’s first webcam was created by researchers at the Cambridge Computer Lab, who wanted to be able to know if fresh coffee was available in their common room without having to leave their chairs.

Caffeine has long been recognized as a requirement for good computer science, ever since the days when you had to book time on a mainframe and slots were often only available late at night. So you needed to stay awake or you’d forfeit your network slot. Those times had long passed, but the coffee pot—which brewed truly terrible coffee, but it was all we had—was still crucial to the smooth running of our research group.

The coffee was only palatable at all if you got it fresh, so those who weren’t in the same room as the machine had a significant disadvantage. But our research group had been exploring ways of handling multimedia on computer networks. It was pretty cutting-edge at the time, and we had some equipment left over from an earlier experiment. We rigged up a CCD video camera on a retort stand and connected it to a computer with a video-capture card. (There weren’t really any digital still cameras available then.) A friend and I created a server program for our operating system and it captured the images periodically. Then we built a quick X-Windows app which connected to it using our special network stack and protocols, and displayed a little icon-sized image.

in 1993, HTML had just gained the IMG tag, and people were starting to include static images in their web pages: diagrams of their research, the logos of their academic institution, and even pictures of pets and loved ones. Mind you, it was much harder to get those in digital form back then. Remember, we didn’t even have mobile phones, let alone ones with cameras in! 

Anyway, we were wondering what would happen if, when a browser asked for an image, it didn’t get back the same one every time. We didn’t know what would happen, because the standards for lots of things we take for granted now, like control over browser caches, hadn’t yet been thrashed out. But we did have a source of constantly changing images—the coffee pot camera—so we could try it out. My colleagues Dan and Martyn modified the server so it could also respond to HTTP requests, and in November 1993 it went live, and the first webcam was born.

Quentin Stafford-Fraser interviewed in PC World

See also:

Wikipedia: Trojan_Room_coffee_pot
More from Petapixel

*Or accidental theft. After reading these articles, I remembered that the phrase “Necessity is the mother of invention” had made an appearance, and came up with a little line about paternity… only to discover that it was right there in the Petapixel article. And so it goes.

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