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.

20 comments

alex avatar

Excellent. You could have a lower tech version with an old-fashioned percolator, a pi, an internet connection and a relay. Wouldn’t be nearly as cool, but it would be a lot easier to do :)

Matthew Mills avatar

Have a look at openshed.org They have Pi running the till system and coffee machine. Also the coffee is good.

Metz avatar

I gots ta gets me one o’deez!! Awesome! :D

Gordon Henderson avatar

Good, but …

There’s a hack/make/cyber cafe/space thing in Penzance and they’re had a Raspberry Pi popwered coffee machine for some time now…

The Pi controls relays to the pump and water heater and water level. There is also a thermostat, so the Pi can turn off the heater when the water is near boiling. (So the program runs on the Pi all the time!)

Bad photo, but: http://unicorn.drogon.net/coffee1.jpg

the Pi also acts as their “till” too – so the other side is that they use a web browser on a PC to access the Pi to make coffee, and count the money when they sell coffee/cakes, etc.

It’s a fantastic little setup!

So if you’re in/near Penzance, drop into them: http://openshed.org/

-Gordon

Patrick avatar

Soon after the 1st WebCam Transmission came the 2nd Transmission, which featured a pervert exposing his junk.

Welcome to the Internet !!!!

Yasir avatar

Facebook poster about Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi | An ARM GNU/Linux box for $35.
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=317306061713008

yakko TDI avatar

We Americans think it sounds funny because Cambridge is a funny name.

I do find it impressive that they have a room full of Greek soldiers ready to strike. You would think they would have kept the coffee pot full though.

Ludger Heide avatar
EdwinJ85 avatar

Java sounds good, but I can’t wait for Mono to work on the pi and a full C# library to be available, that will be amazing.

alex avatar

I prefer Colombian over Java anyway ;)

bfagioli avatar

I’ll drink to that … wishing for a fully working hard-float Mono.

Matthew Phillips avatar

For a much older telephone-controlled hot drinks system, look no further than the Talyllyn Railway. The staff for the café at Abergynolwyn used to travel up on the train to open up at the start of the day. Of course, as soon as they opened up, people wanted tea and coffee, but waiting for the urn to heat up took a while. To improve customer service, I am told that the railway’s signal and telegraph staff rigged the urn up to the railway’s private (and emphatically mechanical) telephone exchange. Ten minutes or so before the train was due to reach Abergynolwyn, staff down the line could dial the appropriate number to turn the urn on!

I’m not sure what happened if you unwittingly dialled the wrong number after the café had shut again. Maybe a burnt-out tea urn?

Montekuri avatar

I prefer Brazil over Java

Jim Manley avatar

I have no use for caffeine, much less coffee – after ~800 extremely provocative posts here in less than a year, can you imagine what it would be like if I were hopped up on Joe??? :D

Then, there’s Oracle’s late-breaking announcement to turn off your Java or risk suffering substantial insecurity! ;)

BobGinCO avatar

A coffee pot.

The leading Tourist Attraction…

In East Anglia…

I am chortling and guffawing, and otherwise expressing exasperating outbursts of frivolity.

For those who think that Punting on the Cam is exhilarating, yes, this must make one positively giddy.

When I lived in Feltwell, Norfolk (and worked at Lakenheath, Suffolk), compliments of the United States Air Force, I came to love the rural nature of East Anglia. Of course, that was in the 70’s, and now, I suppose there are Starbucks on every corner in Thetford. ROFL

Raleigh in St. Louis avatar

If I recall, this was originally accessible via gopher (and who but us old timers remember gophers, archies, veronicas, and jugheads?) and predated HTML and the “World Wide Web” itself. I remember a big scramble to get other coffee pots on the Internet. I think I even compiled gopher links to all the coffee pots on the Internet.

Jon "maddog" Hall avatar

I do not understand the phrase “too much coffee”….but thanks for the post, it was inspirational!

JamesH avatar

Hi Mr Hall/Maddog,

Nice to see you here! Welcome!

James

Neil avatar

My temperature logging and graphing stuff [1] was inspired by that coffee pot. We had a chocolate vending machine in the office, at the end of a long corridor, which broke down regularly, which was a pain to find out when you’d walked all that way. So I rigged up a temperature sensor so I could tell from my desktop if it was working. The chocolate machine, and the office (UUNet in Cambridge) are no more. The sensor lives on though, telling the world when I have a cup of tea, and logging the ambient temperature in my shed. And now it runs on a pi.

[1] http://www.ronketti.org.uk/temp.html

AngusP avatar

The only way I can think of making this better is by checking for a running complier (g++ or whatever) on the Pi, and make a Coffee every time it sees that process running, (with obvious filters so it doesn’t make 100 coffees a hour) so you can chill whilst your code is compiling :-D

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