The World’s Most Famous Teapot: The Utah Teapot

I'm at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, and amongst all the thousands of artifacts here is this: a regular, everyday teapot. The world's most famous teapot. It's called the Utah Teapot, and you've almost certainly seen it before, even if you don't realise it. Or at least, a digital version of it. In the old Windows Pipes screensaver, occasionally instead of a ball joint, a teapot would appear. This teapot. It's in the background of that 3D-animated Simpsons episode from the 90s, and it's in a couple of Pixar films. It's an in-joke amongst animators, and that's because it was the first realistic, complex object to be widely used in computer graphics. In 1974, a researcher at the University of Utah called Martin Newell needed a reference object, something simple to test the algorithms he was designing.

The story goes that he told his wife this as they were sitting down for tea — Newell was born in Britain, so tea — and she suggested that modelling the teapot. And it was ideal. It has concave and convex surfaces. It can cast shadows on itself, which is a problem that some algorithms might find difficult to solve. It's immediately recognisable: you can tell by eye if the teapot looks like a teapot, or if something's gone wrong with your rendering. And you don't have to texture it to make it look good. As long as it has a plain, light colour, and it… well, it… it looks like a teapot. But it's also not too complicated: back in the seventies, computer graphics involved a lot of working by hand. Newell sketched the teapot on graph paper, and then typed in the resulting coordinates by hand. And here's what I really like about the teapot: over the forty-something years that the digital version of it has existed, details about it have been lost to history. It's said that it was used so much for early graphics experiments that some people could remember all of its data in their head and just type it in when they needed it.

Can I find a reliable source for that? Absolutely not, but it's a great story. And at some point, the teapot got squished a bit: some people claim that it's because of old displays with non-square pixels, and some claim it's just because it looked better that way. This is a artifact of the digital era that's got urban legends around it. And whether they're true or not, there's now a canonical version of the teapot: a digital object that's been copied and copied and copied into all sorts of modern culture. Literally billions of people have seen — well, not this teapot — but a version of it that can be described in one page of numbers. Thanks very much to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California! Pull down the description for links to them and the amazing exhibits they've got here..