Martin Newell was worried about his Ph.D. research as he sat down to tea with his wife one day in 1974. His work, at the University of Utah, was in the relatively new field of computer graphics. Some years earlier, the computer scientists David Evans and Ivan Sutherland had come to Utah, transforming the university into the world’s leading center for computer graphics research.
Evans, who had deep family connections to Utah, was a rising star when the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, had recruited him to start its computer science department in 1965. At the time, he’d been on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, and was one of the principal investigators on Project Genie [PDF]. This pathbreaking effort on time-shared computing was supported by the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Administration, or ARPA.
In 1968, Evans lured Ivan Sutherland away from a tenured professorship at Harvard to join him in Utah at the computer science department, as well as at a new company the pair would form, Evans & Sutherland. Sutherland was a pioneer in computer graphics, beginning with his development of the famed Sketchpad software for his 1963 Ph.D. at MIT; his thesis advisor was Claude Shannon. Sketchpad is widely viewed as the first computer-aided design program. In this 1994 talk, Sutherland recounts how he created Sketchpad:
After MIT, Sutherland served as director of the Information Processing Techniques Office at ARPA where he supported Project Genie [PDF]. In 1965, Sutherland joined Harvard, where he undertook important early work in virtual reality focused on head-mounted displays. Three years later, he joined Evans in Utah.
Back to Newell’s problem: The grad student was searching for just the right object to model in three dimensions on a computer, ideally something that had the right set of challenges but wasn’t impossibly complex. His wife, Sandra, suggested their Melitta teapot [pictured at top]. The unadorned white teapot had curves and reflective surfaces, both simple enough to be tractable and difficult enough to be challenging.
Following Newell’s impressive modeling of the teapot, other researchers adopted it, using it to develop and compare new software and hardware. Indeed, the Utah teapot soon became what the historians Cyrus C.M. Mody and Michael Lynch have called a “test object” [PDF]: an object that is used to test experimenters and experiments and thereby help create new knowledge.
Computer science alumni from the University of Utah went on to make impressive and diverse contributions to computing, and especially computer graphics. Many played key roles in the creation of Pixar Animation Studios and the company’s core technologies. It should come as no surprise then that the Utah teapot had cameo appearances in the Pixar blockbusters Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. This video shows some of the teapot’s sightings over the years:
An abridged version of this article appears in the November 2017 print issue as “The Teapot Test.”
Part of a continuing series looking at photographs of historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.