Although webcams (an abbreviation for camera on the Internet web) are only now really taking off outside the US, the medium actually started in Britain, in 1991, when the Internet was still the province of academia and the army. A group of students in Cambridge University's computer department got sick of trailing down flights of stairs to the nearest coffee machine only to find it empty. They decided to train a camera called an image grabber on to the machine which they then linked to the internal computer network. The camera took regular shots of the coffee pot, so the students could see when the coffee was ready without leaving their desks. Then somebody had the idea of putting the image on the Net. It still lives there today, the first ever webcam, enjoying a large cult following. Other early cams followed in its offbeat footsteps: fish-tank cams, nostril cams, even foot cams.

In the mid-Nineties, outdoor cams began to take off. In New York, a cult developed around the Upper West Side Cam, a busy road junction viewed from the study of David Spector, an IT consultant. Locals used it to check the weather, to see what the traffic was like and to look for parking spaces before setting out. People began turning up with placards and signs to wave at friends around the world who they knew would be watching. Gradually the cam became so popular that the junction became gridlocked with drivers all wanting their slice of vicarious global fame.

One of the more curious outdoor cam stories concerned Sharone and Juergen Neuhoff, a couple from Albuquerque in New Mexico. They decided to emigrate to Colchester in Essex after tuning in to a webcam trained on the town's Trinity Square. "We liked the body language and the way people dressed," said Sharone at the time. "We didn't see any gang members, with baggy pants and shaven heads - I think the word in England is `yobs'. Everyone seemed prosperous and happy."

But it was only when webcams went personal and captured people's real lives, that the medium began to find a mass audience. Indoor cams now make up 60 per cent of all cams, according to Sherri Uhrick at Earthcam, the online directory of webcam sites around the world, and she sees personal cams as the major area of growth. One of the longest-running, and the most popular, personal cams is the Jennicam. Jenni is 22-year-old American Jennifer Ringley. She has been on the cam for three years, first via a camera in her college dorm room (until the volume of traffic got her thrown off the college network) and subsequently via a camera in her Washington DC apartment. Jenni never turns off the camera and carries on with what she is doing as though no one is watching: getting changed, sleeping, hanging out with her boyfriend, the same things that everyone does, a normal, unexceptional life: "Visitors either get it or get out," she says.

What started as a college project Jennifer now sees as a lifetime commitment. It has also made her rich since she relaunched herself as a pay site, although she says the $15-a-year subscription is to meet the soaring costs of running such a popular site. However, despite being the very opposite of the many commercial webcam sex sites which followed in her wake, Jenni has got caught in the crossfire of the Internet censorship debate in America. At a Catholic bishops' conference earlier this year in Denver, Leo Hindery, the president of the US's largest cable company, TCI, held up Jennicam as an example of the nation's moral decline. He had evidently never tuned in - and there were some who said he was more worried about losing viewers to a rival medium. JD