The teapot that has become the standard in infographics

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You may not know it, but there is an incredibly famous character tea-pot it’s been in hundreds of movies and TV over the past few decades. Toy Story, The Simpsons, your old computer screensaver – all of these things and more contained the same hidden teapot.

This unassuming teapot dates from 1974 and is arguably the most influential object in computer graphics.

Computer scientist Martin Newell had a doctorate. student at the University of Utah, which was a computer graphics powerhouse in the 1970s. Newell had some innovative ideas about how he could render 3D shapes in computer graphics with things like shadows, textures reflective and dark surfaces. The problem was that at the time, there was no digital object that Newell had access to to test his ideas.

Students and teachers proposed objects such as chess pawns, donuts or urns, but all were deemed too simple to test these new graphical methods.

teapot idea

Newell struggled to find an object until one day while he was drinking tea with his wife, she offered to scan the teapot they were using. The teapot came from a local department store and had all the necessary features: curves, a handle, a lid and the spout, all covered with a reflective ceramic surface. It was perfect.

Newell quickly sketched out the jar with the dimensions, and once back in his lab, he entered the coordinates to construct the digital object using a method with Bezier control points on a Tektronix storage tube – one of first types of infographics module. The end result was one of the most versatile and useful 3D models to date. However, Nowell’s original teapot was not yet in its final form.

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His colleague, Jim Blinn, adjusted the height of the teapot during a demonstration and decided he preferred this version. This is when the Utah teapot was born…

Newell and his colleague Blinn used the teapot extensively for their own research, but they thought it was important that they shared their model publicly. At the time, other researchers also lacked a versatile 3D model, and the Utah teapot was perfect. The model was used so much that some researchers had even memorized the exact data points of the model.

In the closely related computer graphics industry, the teapot has quickly become a staple. Anyone who had a new idea on infographics first tested it on the teapot.

In 1989, Newell’s teapot was used on banners and promotional material for the SIGGRAPH conference. Newell was asked to give the keynote and said this about the whole experience:

“It was kind of weird. This room full of thousands of people hanging on my every word about the teapot. I was like, ‘This is ridiculous. This is going to stop it. That’s all.'”

The Utah teapot today and in pop culture

In modern times, the Utah teapot is legendary. This is a form built into most graphics packages and is still used for testing and demonstration purposes. All of this fame has led the graphics community to sneak the teapot into movies everywhere.

Martin Newell said today that despite all the innovations he worked on, he will sadly be remembered for ‘that goddamn teapot’.

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The teapot has been incorporated into many modern animated films and television shows as a tribute to its original creation and importance in the industry. In fact, it was an inside joke for many years in the animation industry to try to hide the Utah teapot in the movies. The teapot appears in toy story for a tea party scene as well as in an episode of The Simpsons, “Treehouse of Horror VI”. These two shows are just the tip of the iceberg, however.

The teapot also appears in Monsters Inc. and in The Sims 2, among many other places. Notably, it is also hidden in the infamous Pipes screensaver for Microsoft Windows. If you look through the menagerie of pipes, you’ll probably see the hidden teapot.

Teapot in the “Pipes” screensaver on pre-Windows XP devices, Source: Getyourimage

As for how the teapot is currently used in industry, it has changed from an originally real object to a computer-generated object to being used again as a standard 3D object. With the advent of 3D printing, the Utah teapot is used as a test model for 3D printers.

Many companies also use the Utah Teapot template for interesting projects. A Belgian design studio called Unfold 3D printed the teapot in a ceramic material to take the model back to its origins as a ceramic teapot from a thrift store.

Todayhe Utah teapot is a reminder today that sometimes simple objects can be the basis of future innovations.

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