The history of the Internet: ‘The Trojan Room Coffee Pot’

Perhaps this isn’t the most obvious aspect in ‘the history of the Internet’ but it is something I found surprising when re-glancing over ‘The History of the Internet in a Nutshell’ (Chapman, 2009). I am talking about the history of the world’s first ever webcam, ‘The Trojan Room Coffee Pot’. It was created in 1991 in a computer lab at the University of Cambridge.

And the grand reason for this masterpiece creation? A single coffee machine was located in the corridor just beyond the door of the lab where 15 hard-working academics laboured away. Other academics had to walk down several flights of stairs to make it to the coffee machine, according to Quentin Stafford-Fraser, one of the academics at the time (1995).

Well apparently the stress was just too much to handle. People kept wasting their time waiting around for the coffee to be ready. Can you imagine the hassle?

So project ‘XCoffee’ was born. If you want all the nitty-gritty tech stuff, you can find it all here, on Quentin’s very own guest blog on the Cambridge website. The most important thing to note is that the early webcam was born; the machine “captured images of the pot every few seconds at various resolutions” which could be run (in grey scale) on all the academic’s computer screens (Stafford-Fraser, 1995).

xcoffee

Of course at the time, it wasn’t such a huge sensation. It did not get called a ‘breakthrough’ or gain much literary interest. But it did solve the problem of who should get up and check the coffee was ready. No one ever had to make an untimely trip to get coffee again! Hooray!

Daniel Gordon and Martyn Johnson then worked together to get project ‘XCoffee’ onto the Internet in November 1993 (Stafford-Fraser, 2001). People from all over the world tuned in to watch the coffee machine at work. Apparently this was entertaining at the time. Let’s not judge.

This meant that the first ever webcam was fashioned! And now we use them on everything from Facebook, Skype, Snapchat, MSN-Messenger… (Okay, maybe not on that anymore).

Who knew that being too lazy to wait for coffee could result in such a wonderful creation!

… Or was it? So many, myself included, now blame this creation and other creations like it for the lack of privacy online. This invention is one of many which contribute to the inability for us to ever not be tracked online.

Laptops now come with webcams built right in – and hackers know how to get them working without our permission. Most people know how to screenshot when maybe you don’t want to be ‘screenshotted’ when on webcam.

Think about it, without this invention, issues like revenge porn would not even be possible!

So was it a ‘wonderful creation’ after all? Maybe not. Let me know what you think!

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4 Comments

  1. I find it amazing how humans continue to prove that if there’s a will, there’s a way – a happenstance of personal inconvenience can actually make people go out of their way and invent something new which they deemed necessary in that moment.

    A fascinating point you mentioned here is that it was, in fact, not described as a breakthrough when it launched, since it is admittedly quite advanced technology for the year of its release, unlike anything existing prior to that, and the essential basis for many functions nowadays!

    While it’s vital to be informed about the disadvantages of webcams as hacking issues are only increasing, I do reckon that with the cameras enabling face-to-face communication (through apps such as Skype, FaceTime or even Snapchat), the typical notion of digital communication and social media being impersonal and anonymous has been bridged over a bit, which in my opinion is a positive development that might only become more of a ‘thing’ in the future. Would you agree?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do agree that webcam is a positive development to a degree. Skype, FaceTime and Snapchat have all become popular in the modern day, which would not have been possible without this particular invention. I do believe that the future of technology will include the webcam; most social media platforms seem to be incorporating it in somehow. Personally I believe that whilst being a ‘thing’ of the future, the risks should be promoted, such as by schools to teenagers. Issues such as revenge porn or hacking might seem like an ‘it will never happen to me’ issue however this simply is not true. So many people are at risk because they put themselves in a vulnerable situation due to the lack of education on the risks of webcams as well as wider social media risks. As webcam social medias will most likely become even more of a ‘thing’, this education is becoming more vital.

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  2. The story about ‘xcoffee’ is one of my favourites so far. Who could have known then, that the invention which was created just so they could walk around a little less, would result in the webcam being a built-in standard in every smart device.
    I completely agree with the point you make about the issue of privacy. Quite a few stories on this issue appeared in the news recently.
    For example, baby monitor hackers (http://www.wired.com/2013/10/baby-monitor-hacking/), who can break into your baby monitor device if it’s unprotected and actually watch your baby, or even speak to him/her.
    Another example is a Russian-based website, which contains thousands of live feeds to webcams, CCTV and baby monitors which are password unprotected. (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/11/20/webcam-hacker_n_6190042.html) People can easily be watched in their own homes.
    This issue indeed seems terrifying. Even though the invention has brought the convenience of being able to see your family even if they’re a thousand miles away, your own privacy should be more important. Therefore, if you are using a webcam, do ensure that all safety measures have been taken.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, that’s what I call “making history interesting”.
    Honestly, I use this invention a lot for communicating with my family, but I just realised that before reading about it for this module, I had no clue how these tiny little ‘eyes’ were born in the first place.
    I get what you’re saying that they violate our privacy and I totally agree with it. I love this creation for making it possible to see our beloved ones, but then again, when I think of the fact that someone can access my laptop’s webcam without me even realising it, makes me loathe this invention.
    It comes with advantages and disadvantages.. So to answer your last question, it can be called a ‘wonderful creation’ but it also can not.
    Thank you for finding a way to make all these informations readable!

    Liked by 1 person

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