In 1975, the teapot that is sometimes colloquially referred to as Newell’s Teapot was, in fact, a white, Melitta teapot belonging to British computer scientist, Martin Newell. Newell needed a real world object that he could use as a model for a three dimensional rendering. He wanted to test his new ideas for making three dimensional computer objects appear more realistic. Specifically, he wanted to show a method of modeling Bézier curves, parametric curves used in computer graphics. None of the real world objects then traditionally used for such experimentation, such as chess pieces, donuts, and urns, had designs that were sufficiently complex for the algorithms Newell wanted to create and test. When he shared his dilemma, with his wife, Sandra, allegedly while they were sitting down to tea, she suggested he use their teapot as his real world object. The teapot was an ideal fit for Newell’s project.
Its design wasn’t too simple, but it also wasn’t terribly complex. In the 1970s, creating computer graphics was more time consuming than it is today. Newell drew the teapot on graph paper, then typed the coordinates by which he would create his algorithms into his computer. Since a teapot’s design is relatively simple, Newell could quickly and easily determine the usefulness of his algorithms. If his teapot didn’t look like a teapot, he needed to redo them. It had concave and convex surfaces, and it could cast shadows on itself. Both of these traits would allow Newell to run more complex tests on his rendering than he could on, for example, a rendering of an urn. It didn’t need texturing to look realistic, however, which would save the graphic designer time when creating the rendering. Since Newell was a Phd student at The University of Utah while he was creating these algorithms—hence his desire to make an entirely new contribution to the field of computer science—his rendering is most commonly called, The Utah Teapot.
Newell was able to test his new algorithms using his rendering of his kitchen teapot, and he has made significant contributions to both three dimensional animation and computer coding. As an employee at Xerox PARC, he co-designed JaM, a program that preceded Postscript. The name of his program is derived from combining his own first name, Martin, with the name of John Warnock, a co-founder of Adobe Systems. Though Newell retired as an Adobe Fellow at Adobe Systems, The Utah Teapot may be his most famous contribution to computer technology. The Utah Teapot was the first real world object that was widely used in computer graphics, and it’s the only real world object used in computer graphics that has its own persisting mythos. Claims that cannot be proven include: University of Utah professors, Rich Riesenfeld and Elaine Cohen added thickness to the teapot. Jim Blinn, one of Newell’s doctoral students, squished The Utah Teapot for ease when he was working with nonsquare pixels, and other designers, including Newell, preferred the little teapot short and stout. The coordinates from Newell’s original graph paper sketch of his teapot have been lost, perhaps because so many graphic designers created The Utah Teapot so often that they simply memorized them.
If the mythos surrounding The Utah Teapot cannot be verified, its enduring cultural significance can. Anyone who uses a computer or watches television has probably seen The Utah Teapot, though perhaps without recognizing it. It occasionally appeared in the pipe design that was Microsoft Windows 1995 screen saver. When Homer is transported to the third dimension in an episode of Matt Groening’s television series, The Simpsons, entitled “Treehouse of Horror VI,” The Utah Teapot is floating behind him. In Pixar’s animated movie, Monsters, Inc., The Utah Teapot is in Boo’s bedroom. In Disney/Pixar’s movie, Toy Story, a pink version of The Utah Teapot appears in a short tea party scene. Various graphic designers have created golden Utah Teapots, leopard skin Utah Teapots, and woolly Utah Teapots. For these graphic designers, this teapot is no longer a teapot. It’s a thank you note to Martin Newell.