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These days, any proud parent with $30 or so can get a webcam for the home computer and use it to share live video of Junior with Grandma and Grandpa over the Internet. Keeping an eye on a distant loved one seems an obvious use for the relatively new technology. In fact, that’s just what the researchers who built the first webcam had in mind. Only in their case, the object of affection wasn’t an adorable kid-it was a University of Cambridge coffeepot.

In 1991, when the World Wide Web was a text-only hangout for science geeks, and the University of Cambridge in England didn’t even have its own Web server, the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory’s sole coffee machine lived in the hall outside a 15-member lab called the Trojan Room. Several members of the Lab’s “coffee club,” however, resided elsewhere in the building and had to negotiate several flights of stairs to reach the coffeepot. Their trips were often in vain, though, since the hackers from the Trojan Room tended to guzzle the fresh coffee first. Caffeine-starved but undeterred, the remote club members built the world’s first networked camera.

In the course of about a day, the researchers set up a video camera on a lab stand and wired it to a nearby computer, which was linked in to the university’s local network. One of the researchers, Paul Jardetzky, wrote a program instructing the computer to capture images of the pot every few seconds. Quentin Stafford-Fraser, now at AT&T Laboratories Cambridge, created a complementary program for computers in the remote researchers’ own area of the building. The software revealed the pot’s status, updated three times a minute-often enough to tell whether a trip to the Trojan Room would yield the desired buzz.

A few years later, the university got its first Web server, and a new batch of computer researchers took advantage of it to make the Trojan Room coffeepot images available worldwide. Millions of visitors have checked it out since: today the picture is updated every second, and a small lamp illuminates the pot even when the Lab is empty so that visitors can virtually check on it any time, day or night. Soon, however, the first webcam will fall victim to history, sped up to Internet time. The University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory will move to new quarters later this year, and the coffeepot and its camera-after 10 years of cult fame-will retire. Until then, you can still grab some virtual caffeine at www.cl.cam.ac.uk/
coffee/coffee.html.

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