Cambridge Invents // Webcam - Collusion

Cambridge Invents // Webcam

Collusion’s 2014 series of films celebrating Cambridge’s creativity

Press play above to hear more from Quentin Stafford-Fraser about the story behind the webcam.

Do you know that a Cambridge University team invented the first webcam ‘just’ to watch a coffee pot and that, as one of the first live images on the internet, it became an international phenomenon? 

Back in the early 1990’s the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory had one major problem. The researchers were scattered all over the building in different labs and on different floors but the one coffee filter machine was in the Trojan room. It took a while to percolate the perfect coffee and no one knew when the pot was ready and full. 

So, in 1991, Dr Quentin Stafford Fraser and Dr Paul Jardetzky rigged up a spare camera and frame grabber to monitor the pot, with the image refreshing every three minutes. They wrote software to capture and then display the small, grainy images in a window on the desktops of internal networked computers. The system was modified when web browsers became capable of displaying images and on 22 November 1993, the first images of the coffee pot appeared on the world wide web, courtesy of Dr Martyn Johnson, whose computer was not on the internal network. 

Job done, now all Computer Lab researchers could see the coffee pot … and so could the rest of the world and they were fascinated! People from Japan and Australia wrote asking the Lab to leave the lights on overnight so they could see the pot during their daytime. Visitors started arriving to see the pot, with one even going to the Tourist Information Centre in Cambridge. It was an international news and media story, making the front pages of the Washington Post and the London Times; appearing on BBC Breakfast and being mentioned in the BBC Radio 4 soap opera, The Archers. 

By 2001, the Computer Lab was moving to new premises and they were clearing out old stuff so the webcam was switched off.  The only money ever made from the invention came when the coffee pot was auctioned on Ebay. The winning bid of £3,350 came from Der Spiegel who put it back onto the net via webcam, though this time, without any coffee. 

The story of the development of the webcam is a classic one -​ a solution designed to address one practical problem​ (the need for caffeine) turned out to be ​a major ​step forward in the development of ​key ​technologies we use today ​such as Skype and Facetime. 

Press play above to hear more from Quentin Stafford-Fraser about the story behind the webcam.