The year was 1991. A group of enterprising students at the University of Cambridge cobbled together a webcam that monitored a pot of coffee, relaying the grainy image across the computer lab’s local network three times every minute. Two years later, the feed would be connected to something called “The Internet” for more widespread viewing.
The purpose of the camera was recounted in 1995 by Quentin Stafford-Fraser, who wrote the client software people used to check in on the coffee levels:
Several people have asked about the origins of the Trojan Room coffee pot. 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.
Search hard enough and you’ll find various reports about “lazy” computer science geeks and their over-the-top solution to a simple problem. (They don’t even have to stand up!) I suspect this was more a time saving solution than anything else, though. Time is money. Work smarter not harder. That kind of stuff.
Plus, according to Stafford-Fraser, “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.” See? Everyone wins.
Here’s an old BBC news story about the fabled system (skip to about the 1:15 mark):
The system was apparently taken offline in August, 2001, with German magazine Der Spiegel reportedly paying $5,000 for the coffee maker at auction.