Coffee!

Coffee and computing go hand in hand. The world’s first live streaming webcam was pointed at a coffee pot in the Cambridge University Computer Lab’s Trojan Room (yes, Americans, I know you think that sounds funny), back in the days when it was on a shared site in the centre of Cambridge and none of us had even heard of the internet.

It was 1991. A young Quentin Stafford-Fraser was researching ATM networks in the Trojan Room, and drinking too much coffee. Other people in the lab also liked fresh coffee, but there was only one coffee machine between 15 researchers, it was a long walk up an awful lot of stairs to get to the Trojan Room, and all too often, the pot was empty and the walk upstairs wasted. (I think “wasted” is pushing it a bit far. Quentin’s very good conversation.)

Ever practical, Quentin pointed a camera at the Trojan Room coffee pot, hooked it up to a video frame grabber the ATM researchers were using, got Paul Jardetzky to write some server software, and wrote the client software for it himself. Researchers downstairs could now ping the coffee pot to see whether there was anything in it. “The image was only updated about three times a minute, but that was fine because the pot filled rather slowly, and it was only greyscale, which was also fine, because so was the coffee.”

Trojan Room Coffee Pot

Quentin didn’t realise it at the time, but he had laid the grounds (badoom tish) for the world’s first webcam. In 1993, the <img> tag was added to HTML, meaning you could embed pictures on a webpage. The same year, two more researchers at the lab, Dan Gordon and Martyn Johnson, made changes to the original coffee pot setup to allow it to respond to requests from the internet, and xcoffee became the first ever live webcam.

The Trojan Room Coffee Pot stayed in place (and maintained an online presence: in 1996 it got its millionth hit, and journalist Steve Farrar noted that it had had more ‘visitors’ than King’s College Chapel and was therefore the number one tourist attraction in East Anglia) until 2001, when the University Computer Lab was moved out of its ramshackle old site to a shiny new building in West Cambridge. I was lucky enough to be at the university just before the move, and drank a couple of cups of coffee from the machine, courtesy of friends at the lab. (Quentin is right about the greyscale thing. Historic it might have been, but it was bloody awful coffee.) Eventually, the pot was auctioned on eBay to raise money for coffee-making in the new lab; Der Spiegel Online bought it for £3350. Apparently, Krups refurbished it free of charge, and it’s still making greyscale coffee for an office full of German journalists.

Anyway. This long preamble doesn’t have much to do with the Pi. (About an hour after I originally posted this, Barney Livingston pointed out on Twitter that The Trojan Room Coffee Server was an Acorn Archimedes, so shares its ARM processor heritage with the Pi.) But it does demonstrate that projects involving coffee and computers have a long and storied history in this part of the world. Technology has moved on, but the coffee is still supremely important. So Sacha Wolter from Deutsche Telekom has incorporated a Raspberry Pi into his coffee machine. It’s a bit more sophisticated than the Trojan Room Coffee Pot; Sacha’s coffee machine rings him up when the coffee’s ready, and if Sacha places a call to the machine, it’ll get a pot ready for his arrival.

Sadly, Sacha hasn’t made the code available, but he does talk some more about the project in this blog post, and points the intrigued at the Pi4J project, which is meant to bridge between native libraries and Java for full access to the Raspberry Pi.

And back in the UK, Quentin Stafford-Fraser is still pratting about with webcams; those of you with long memories might recall this grab-bag from last summer which featured him…pratting about with webcams. More power to your history-making elbow, Quentin.