When you were at school, somebody probably once showed you a jet-black piece of paper and said it was in fact a black cat in a coal cellar at midnight in Blackpool. Well, times change. These days, children show each other a black computer screen and say it's a blackboard in a Tokyo classroom taken at midnight with a very bad camera. The point is, though, they would be absolutely correct. They'd be looking at a web cam - a video camera that places live pictures onto web pages.
The genesis of web cams, if folklore is to be believed, was a university where somebody trained a camera on the coffee pot in the common room. Staff could see whether it was worth popping downstairs for a top-up just by looking at the image on their computer screens. It ended up as one of the most popular sites on the Internet.
This is, of course, a classic example of the Internet being good at doing useless things. The added feature with web cams is that you can usually rely on them not to work properly. The bandwidth isn't at the stage where the images are as good as video and many of them update only every hour or so, although some of the more ambitious sites now refresh every few seconds.
There are a couple of types of web cams worth looking out for. The first are in places like Antarctica; you're never likely to go there but can still see first-hand that it actually exists. Other sites it's fun to check out are places where you've already been. It can be bizarrely reassuring to discover that somewhere you've visited is still actually there.
As the technology improves, it's easy to see how these sites will also become important educational tools. A group of amateur stargazers in California, for example, run pictures from their solar telescope, along with an archive of phenomena that they've already recorded.
The real trick is to look in places where something is likely to be going on at the time. Plenty of academics in America have cameras in their offices, but if you're watching at 5am their time, you're not likely to encounter much worth watching. As a compensation, though, there's plenty of so-bad-it's-good material around. The best we could find (and I am not making this up) is somebody who's put a camera in their wardrobe. If you find anything to compete, we'd love to know.
So I'm heading to Blackpool to spend the rest of the weekend setting up a web cam site of a black cat eating liquorice down a coal cellar. It may not be great, but it won't be much worse than a lot of the stuff out there.
An eclectic list of web cams ranging from the genuinely interesting (a science station in Antarctica) to the silly (offices).
A more selective list of global locations, mostly city views
The person who's decided to put a camera in their wardrobe.
Fishtank web cams seem to have a something of cult following. In this one there don't actually appear to be any fish.
Around the world in 80 clicks. A series of 80 web cams starting from New York and circling the globe eastwards taking in Dublin, Cambridge and London on the way.Reuse content