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The Utah Teapot: Most Important Object in Computer Graphics History (nautil.us)
165 points by dnetesn on Mar 2, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

Also of note: Around the same time, University of Utah students created the first ever computer graphics generated picture that looks like its physical model: Marsha Sutherland's (Ivan Sutherland's wife) VW Bug [1].

The VW was hand measured by Sutherland's students: Jim Clark (of SGI/Netscape fame), Bui-Tui Phong (of Phong shading fame), Raphel Rom (of Catmull-Rom spline fame), and Robert McDermott (of Vegreville Egg fame). (I just listed some highlights of careers, they all accomplished much more!)

A first hand account of the model creation is preserved by Mr. McDermott on page 7 of the Fall 2003 edition of The Utah Teapot [2] (the aptly named University of Utah School of Computing quarterly newsletter).

The CS Dept. at the U of Utah has such a storied history, especially rich in fundamental computer graphics research [3]. Growing up in proximity to it definitely shaped my career path.

[1] http://jalopnik.com/the-first-real-object-ever-3d-scanned-an...

[2] http://www.cs.utah.edu/docs/misc/Uteapot03.pdf

[3] http://www.cs.utah.edu/about/history

  > Back in his lab, he entered the sketched coordinates—called bézier
  > control points, first used in the design of automobile bodies—on a
  > Tektronix storage tube, an early computer memory.
Urg. Not a ‘memory’ in the computer sense, not being readable by the computer. What this means is that he used a Tektronix graphics terminal that had a self-persisting CRT display.¹

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct-view_bistable_storage_t...

Edit: Teapot on a Tektronix 4014: https://youtu.be/bZOrL7f1-kE

Incidentally, there was in fact CRT-based RAM at one time: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Williams_tube?wprov=sfla1

Original author here. Thanks for catching this; the mistake was introduced in the editing process. Should be fixed now.

Arguably it's a real example of the fabled Write-Only Memory. :)

Yep, the Teapot is one of the highlights of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Possibly the most exciting teapot I've ever seen!


Other highlights include the working Babbage Engine, with a rather good lecture.

Antihighlights include the otherwise excellent display on the history of integrated circuits, sponsored by Intel, which doesn't mention ARM in any way anywhere...

The museum's totally worth a look if you're there.

Do they have a life-size wax figure of Lena Söderberg [1]? If not, someone should donate the money for one.

[1] http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~chuck/lennapg/lenna.shtml

And a stuffed mandrill?

Perhaps just a display copy of the original magazine?

To be "fair" (?), the opposite of Intel in this context isn't ARM but the sum total of IC fabs and designs done outside Intel, of which ARM is a small part.

The Babbage Engine was great, and has now moved on:


In the precursor Boston Computer Museum, they had the Newell teapot on a turntable, with a computer display next to it showing a rotating computer graphic version turning at the same speed. I thought it was a pretty clever display.

This teapot is the graphics and rendering equivalent of the image processing worlds "Lena" image (albeit with a less racy backstory)

I've wanted to compile a list of canonical simplified problem settings in various fields. Their longevity is interesting to me.

Things like the relativistic boxcars in physics, the urns and balls in probability (http://www.arcaneknowledge.org/science/ehrenfest.html), the teapot, Lena, blocks-world in AI.

Alice and Bob and Carol in cryptography.


Other favorites from computer graphics are the Cornell box, the Stanford bunny, and the SPD sphereflake.

Or the Wilhelm Scream from the film world. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_scream)

My kids and I give each other knowing glances whenever we hear it. Now we'll look for the teapot too.

For those like me who didn't know what "Lena" image is being referred to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenna

I feel like the Stanford Bunny should get an honourable mention too.


The original is in a museum? I thought I read that it was in orbit somewhere between the orbits of Earth and Mars...

That's just some ancient book saying it.

So? The vast majority of people agree that's what happened to it.

When I was in high school the U had a summer school where you would use their alpha_1 software for graphics modeling.

alpha_1 was a system going back to the 1980 designed specifically for modeling with NURBS: https://www.cs.utah.edu/gdc/projects/alpha1/help/man/html/in...

Yes, the UofU High School Ccomputing Institute [1]. I was accepted in '96 but already working a summer job in research park at the time (at a company w/ a commercial NURBS package) and didn't ever build a model. The coolest part is they would 3D print your model long before it being the commodity that it is today.

It'd be interesting to see a follow-up on the HSCI alumni and where they are now.

[1] http://www.cs.utah.edu/~rma/hci/cs/hsci.html

I was in 2002, the last class I think. In fact, I can't find any reference anymore to the later classes. It used to be maintained, but it's disappeared.

I also recently noticed that websites historically hosted on home.utah.edu were removed. I was going to find my old model (a model of Escher's Belvedere) but it's now gone.


my model: http://imgur.com/VqPVSAj

Yes, 2002 was the last year. Prof. Dave Hanscom ran the HSCI from 1990 to 2002 [1].

I checked the Wayback Machine (archive.org), but unfortunately it doesn't have those pages mirrored. It's very sad that this history seems to be getting lost. At least one prestigious alumni (HSCI '92) that of I'm aware of is Berkeley Prof. Alexei Efros [2].

Awesome model! It's definitely one of the best ones I've seen from that program.

[1] http://www.cs.utah.edu/~hanscom/

[2] http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/~efros/

http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.cs.utah.edu/~hanscom... shows 100 captures? And for the original HSCI main page, http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.cs.utah.edu/~hsci/ there are 86 captures. Looking at Summer 2002, it appears that the hsci pages moved to http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.eng.utah.edu/outreac... which has 64 captures.

Yes, the final captures of hsci all say "page not found" (soft 404), but the earlier ones are fine.

Thanks! I was looking for ece.utah.edu, I knew there was another domain involved.

Interesting. I think he must be the son of the physics professor of the same name at the U (My BS was in Applied Physics at the U)

I think some of the links historically were also under ece.utah.edu. I might be able to find some other direct links on a few older computers which might still be in the wayback machine.

Pixar gives out wind-up teapots at Siggraph each year.


Just a little trivia: the original model for the teapot did not have a bottom.

I imagine making a cuppa would go pourly.

This is potentially the most British joke possible.

Hopefully they fixed that before attempting to add tea.

I remember my first time to the Computer History Museum, was wondering through and suddenly saw the teapot. I was stopped in my tracks.

Way back (well, just shy of a decade ago) in my CompSci Signal and Image Processing course I got to know this teapot very, very well. Even created a 3-dimensional solar system of orbiting teapots that mimicked the exact orbits and rotations of the planets. Think I posted it on GitHub somewhere, too.

Whenever I read about Russell's Teapot, I envision it as a Utah teapot specifically.

Didn't realise it was a long standing graphics in joke. Reading this took me back 20 years to my time as an AVS/Express developer. AVS used the teapot as a standard object for testing geometry pipelines.

Teapots are everywhere: http://www.google.com/teapot

Nice. On mobile, tilt your device.

Can also use the Chrome inspector to tilt it (set γ to negative values) https://developer.chrome.com/devtools/docs/device-mode#devic...

Works on a Fall 2011 Macbook Pro, too. Didn't know it has an accelerometer embedded.

That's just standard RFC2324 support.

The Stanford bunny is a close second. It is used everywhere in SIGGRAPH demos.

I had the privilege of working g with Martin for a while once. The guy is one of those brilliant folks who is also incredibly humble, friendly, and happy to teach things to newbies. And he's really funny.

Goes beyond computer graphics. See HTTP status 418.

Best article on HN I have read in a while. I always wondered where that teapot came from.

too bad the handle on the lid looks nothing like the real tea pot it was modeled off...

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