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Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

Posted October 13, 2016 8:00 AM by BestInShow

Yesterday a discussion in a meeting reminded me of Carnegie Mellon University’s Internet Coke Machine. Histories of the Internet of Things (IOT) point to this machine as the first example of a networked, remotely-controllable device. These days we’re comfortable with the idea that we can, and do, turn house lights off and on via smart phone while we’re vacationing in Bermuda. Mr. Best in Show can control quite a lot of the stuff in our house this way. For us this technology is a convenience, not a necessity, but remote control capability does contribute to a homeowner’s peace of mind. And there are plenty of examples where remote monitoring and control is more critical.

But a Coke machine? Who would care? I was working at Carnegie Mellon in 1982, when Internet Coke Machine made its debut. When I heard the story of the reason behind its development, my first reaction was, essentially, how lazy can you get? Not
how cool is it that graduate students figured out the technology to make it work. I’m sure a lot of inventions are prompted by the inventor’s desire to do a job more efficiently, or with less manual labor. But then sometimes a bunch of smart people, by solving a problem that might seem trivial, produce an invention with an impact far beyond its intended application.

Those of you who aren’t familiar with the story of Internet Coke Machine might be wondering what laziness has to do with genius, or vice versa. Here’s a synopsis. A group of computer science graduate students got tired of walking one floor down from their offices to the nearest soft drink vending machine, only to find that their favorite soda was sold out or not yet chilled enough to drink. Wouldn’t it be great, they thought, if we could find out before we make that onerous journey that we’d be disappointed? Remember, this is 1982, the infancy of the internet. As I recall, Carnegie Mellon’s campus network was for some reason linked to the one at Columbia University. Remote access was via 1200 baud modem, using a dumb Z-19 terminal, and the campus network ran on linked DEC-20s. I know; I’m showing my age here, but I digress.

A group of four graduate students (Mike Kazar, Ivor Durham, John Zsarnay, and David Nichols) took on the challenge of figuring out how to avoid fruitless trips to the vending machine. Each of the four undertook different parts of the project. Zsarnay installed microsensors, each hooked up to one of the local Ethernet networks, to detect how many bottles of soft drinks were in each of the six columns. The rest of the team wrote the software that gathered information about the status of the machine’s contents. They were able not only to tell if a column was empty; they could also tell how many bottles were in a column and infer how cold the bottles in a column might be.

To check Internet Coke Machine’s status, all one had to do was to “finger” the user named “coke.” (Finger is a network command used to determine whether a user is logged in or not.) Ivor Durham is credited with modifying the finger protocol to make it deliver coke machine status information. A serious programming book, Expert Programming: Deep C Secrets, has a section on Internet Coke Machine.

The picture above is not the Coke machine. To see a picture, use this link.

This invention spurred the development of a number of other wired soft drink machines around the world. In 1991 Cambridge University’s computer laboratory staff set up what might be considered a technological improvement: a coffee pot with its own webcam, so caffeine addicts could monitor coffee levels. Sadly, this camera is offline. The lab auctioned off the last of the physical coffee pots, a Krups, to Spiegel Online for 3,350 pounds; it’s now in the German Museum of Technology. The whereabouts of the original Internet Coke Machine are unknown.

Out of curiosity I searched to see where the original four graduate students ended up.

  • Mike Kazar is the co-creator of the Andrew File system, among other achievements. He received the 2013 IEEE Reynold B. Johnson Information Storage Systems award.
  • Ivor Durham joined Adobe Systems in 1986 as Director of Engineering and went on to work with two other companies with similar businesses.
  • David Nichols was working at Xerox PARC in 1990.
  • John Zsarnay was with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon in 1990.

Are there other CR4 members who were at Carnegie Mellon in the era of Internet Coke Machine? Or did you attend or work at another location with one of these early IoT contraptions? Let us hear from you!

References

http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~coke/

http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/internet-coke-machine

Image credit:

Wikimedia Commons

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#1

Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/13/2016 8:26 AM

Please don't assume that everyone shares your views. Not everyone "is comfortable with the idea that we can, and do, turn house lights off and on via smart phone while we’re vacationing in Bermuda". Not everyone wants to be linked to everyone/thing else.

The assumption is causing the closure of bank branches and reduction in humans on call lines. It's the reason utilities refuse to send me paper bills, despite the fact that, as a customer, my lifestyle means it's quicker for me to deal with a piece of paper than an email.

Whilst I applaud the ingenuity of those involved, it should be remembered than not all progress is to the benefit of the whole (or even majority) of the population.

\luddite mode off

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#2

Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/13/2016 8:57 AM

It's convenient to leave your door key under the floor mat. It's convenient but not very safe. IMHO, connecting everything to the internet falls into the same category, convenient but not very safe.

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#3

Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/13/2016 9:16 AM

Just add it to this list of concerns.....

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#4
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Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/13/2016 10:31 AM

I have found that not concerning myself with things until they actually happen saves a huge amount of time, money resources and unneeded stress.

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#5
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Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/13/2016 10:39 AM

I agree, and on those lines I follow this rule; "failing to plan is planning to fail"

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#6

Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/13/2016 11:11 AM

My refrigerator keeps saying I need more milk....but I don't drink it, calcium seems to cause hardening of the arteries....

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/americas-dairy-farmers-dump-43-million-gallons-of-excess-milk-2016-10-13

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/256791.php

Yes, no not really....but is this what the future looks like, companies constantly bugging you to buy their product through your appliances....Companies paying for access to consumers? I guess this has always been the case....just getting a bit more intrusive...

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Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/13/2016 11:57 AM

calcium seems to cause hardening of the arteries....

Just wait till the next medical study release, I'm sure that will change.

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#12
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Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/15/2016 3:59 AM

I heard that the soda companies are going to promote their carbonated sugar water as a health food.

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#8

Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/14/2016 12:45 AM

When I was younger, my friend worked at a high end stereo shop, customers would drop off their foreign cars in the driveway, he had a little box that would call the vehicles alarm and unlock the doors. I imagine that while you are sunning yourself on the Jamaican beach, a guy would call your homes internet and unlock your house door...

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#9

Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/14/2016 8:59 AM

If the graduate level of computer science is even tougher than the undergraduate level, I understand their reason for wanting this aid to save them some steps. (in reality - it was to not waste time) I remember, when in college, there were two groups of students no one wished to ever emulate - computer science and architectural engineering. Both groups were never, and I mean never, in their beds at any time of the day. My one buddy was in comp sci and we would not see him for weeks on end. He lived at the main terminal day after day eating only vending machine junk food. Of course that was pre-pc days - perhaps by the early 80's, when this Coke machine was modified, this was not a requirement to succeed anymore.

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Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/14/2016 9:26 AM

When I worked at Carnegie Mellon (1981-90), there wasn't an undergraduate comp sci major. Undergrads got degrees in math or electrical engineering with a computer science emphasis. The grad students still spent all their time in Wean Hall, where comp sci lived at the time.

Carnegie Mellon had, and has, an elite program with a lot of competition and entrepreneurship. Some of the stories we heard sound like urban legends but they were true ... like the group of students who didn't want to leave the public computer lab during closing time (something like 2:00 - 6:00 AM) so they figured out how to get sleeping bags into the dropped ceiling. They'd catch some Z's and then climb back down. Probably not much different from the way a lot of folks are glued to their phones/Game Boys these days. The campus benefited from having these high-powered folks around. IBM gave us PCs and a honking big mainframe, Apple gave us Macs, other companies gave us other goodies.

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Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/14/2016 9:52 AM

that's what type of employees google and apple were looking for.

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#13

Re: Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

10/15/2016 4:54 AM

"Job more efficiently." One did invest in time.

I need a connection to the supermarket in my town to check stocks of smokes at the cheap shop..

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