Web cam coffee pot served up in auction

It's perhaps the most famous coffee pot in the world, and now it's likely one of the most expensive.

The machine, in the Trojan Room at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory in the U.K., has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of Internet surfers via a frame grab posted on the Web. It's developed such a cult following that bidders on the eBay Inc. Web site pushed up the price of the pot to 3,350 pounds (US$4,767) in an online auction which ended Saturday.

The story began in the pre-Web days of 1991, when researchers working on ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) networks pointed a digital camera at their coffee pot and wrote software enabling members of the lab's "coffee club" to view an image of the pot on their computer screens. That way they could save themselves long, late-night trips through the corridors for a caffeine infusion when the pot was empty. In a later version, the image was broadcast over the Web, and the popular XCoffee site, reputedly the first-ever Web cam, was born.

Now the lab is moving buildings, and the 10-cup Krups ProAroma -- actually the latest of several machines which have served in the spot -- is being retired.

"Times move on and we want to buy a shiny new espresso machine because from the new building it's too far to walk to Starbucks," the researchers wrote in their eBay offering.

It's not too late to get a last look at the XCoffee site (http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/coffee/coffee.html), though the pot itself is obscured by a hand-lettered sign reading "Sold."

But if the proud new owners are looking forward to fresh brew, they might be disappointed.

"We must warn you that the machine is broken, possibly beyond repair. It leaks water and we've cut off the mains plug," wrote the academics.

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Rick Perera

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