The Utah Teapot is a 3D computer graphics model which is frequently used to demonstrate the capabilities of 3D graphics renderers. It is instantly recognizable to anyone working in the field of computer graphics. In fact, the model is so popular that it prompted the coining of the term 'teapotahedron' -- the sixth platonic solid (alongside the tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron).

In the early 1970s, a good deal of pioneering research in computer graphics was being done at the University of Utah. Much of the research at Utah was concentrated on developing rendering algorithms -- computer algorithms that create digital images from 3D models. Back then, usable 3D scanners or 3D modelling software didn't exist. Models had to be entered into the computer by typing the coordinates by hand with a text editor.

Martin E. Newell was a researcher working at U. of Utah around that time. The story goes, when having tea with his wife, he complained that he didn't have enough interesting models to test his algorithms with. His wife suggested that he create a model out of the tea service. Taking her suggestion, he proceeded to sketch the teapot, cup, saucer, and spoon with a pencil on some graph paper. Later in the lab, he entered the data into the computer as a 3D model. This was in 1975. The rest is history.

The popularity of the teapot can be attributed to the fact that it has a complex shape while taking little storage space. It has a non-trivial topology, sharp edges and smooth surfaces, concave and convex surfaces as well as saddle points, self-shadowing and hidden-surface issues. Plus, it's an familiar object so you can easily recognize if the renderer made a mistake.

During a presentation at a SIGGRAPH conference in the late 1980s, Newell lamented the fact that, of all the contributions to computer graphics he had made, he would be remembered primarily for "that damned teapot."

The real teapot was later sent to an exhibit at the Boston Computer Museum. There, it was displayed alongside a computer rendering of it shown on a CRT monitor. The teapot now resides in the Computer Museum History Center in Mountain View, California.

The original computer model of the teapot is made of 9 bicubic Bézier patches. The rim, body, and lid were modelled as surfaces of revolution while the spout and handle were modelled as ducted solids. The original model didn't have a bottom -- that was added later. Also, the original model is about 30% taller than what people use nowadays. According to legend, computer graphics researcher James F. Blinn squashed the model to compensate for the non-square pixels on an early Evans and Sutherland computer monitor.

On more thing. Microsoft Windows NT includes an OpenGL screensaver which displays a complex assembly of pipes. Every so often, one of the elbows will be replaced with a teapot. That's the Utah Teapot.


Oolong says re Utah Teapot: Nice bit of history. For what it's worth, OpenGL includes the teapot as a 'primitive', and I believe 3DS Max has a 'create teapot' function too.

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