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Martin Newell remembers that he and his wife, Sandra, weren't in the habit of discussing his research when they sat for tea one weekend in 1975.

The British couple had moved to Salt Lake City so Newell could work under professor Ivan Sutherland at the University of Utah — the home of countless breakthroughs underway and yet to come in computer graphics and animation.

But Newell suspects his wife held the common opinion "that this whole thing about drawing pictures with computers was a very strange thing to do."

She might have found it stranger still, then, that her suggestion over tea that day would lead to one of the most iconic images in the history of his field: a digital version of her white porcelain teapot.

Researchers were just discovering how to create realistic digital shapes and surfaces, the first steps toward the virtual worlds being created by students today in the U.'s top-ranked video game design program.

Using the era's improved hardware, researchers were trying to create digital versions of all sorts of objects. Sutherland and his students had notably used flat-surface polygons to model his 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.

Newell wanted to show the usefulness of another method of modeling — Bezier curves ­— and his wife suggested he use their tea set.

He sketched and plotted a spoon, saucer and cup, too, but none turned out to have the combination of properties possessed by the Melitta teapot they had bought from a ZCMI department store.

Among them: it cast a shadow on itself, it was round but didn't have overly complex curves, and had a concave space created by its handle.

When Newell shared his data set, he gave other graphics researchers a starting point to test their own ideas. A designer who wanted to explore how shading can make an object appear more real could just start shading the teapot — without the tedium of first envisioning and creating another effective model.

And it was a universal starting point — people anywhere knew what a teapot was supposed to look like, and they could compare their illumination, reflection, shading and other refinements to the efforts of others.

What followed for the teapot, Newell said, was "the 1970s version of something going viral."

It didn't hurt, either, that the teapot was attached to the U. — a world leader in computer graphics.

"If I had done that same thing, only somewhere else, you'd probably never have heard of the teapot again," he said.

The teapot evolved through the years. U. computer science professor Rich Riesenfeld and his wife, fellow U. professor Elaine Cohen, gave the teapot a thickness — Newell's original only had a surface — and a bottom when they used another modeling technique to render it in aluminum.

One of Newell's doctoral students, Jim Blinn, was responsible for its biggest makeover when he squished it for convenience while working with non-square pixels. The stout pot stuck.

"Everybody, including me, liked the teapot squished," Newell said.

While researchers and students created golden teapots, leopard-print teapots and woolly teapots, Newell made other important contributions to the field.

After leaving the U., he worked with U. graduate and Adobe Systems co-founder John Warnock in Palo Alto to create a programming language known as JaM — which stood for "John and Martin." That was a predecessor to PostScript, a graphics language key to the development of desktop publishing.

But it would be hard to outshine the teapot. A well-circulated paper on a new graphics technique included an image of stone columns hoisting "The Six Platonic Solids," adding the "Teapotahedron" to the Greek philosopher's fundamental shapes. Never was the teapot's ubiquity more pronounced than at the 1989 SIGGRAPH conference in Boston — site of well-known tea partying — when Newell's teapot was reproduced on banners and posters and Newell gave a speech at the opening ceremony.

"It was quite bizarre," he said. "... This room full of thousands of people hanging on my every word about the teapot. I thought, 'This is ridiculous. This will put it to rest. That's it.'"

It wasn't.

U. computer science professor Chuck Hansen said the teapot is used in classes today. While computer graphics have advanced significantly in 40 years, "you can see a lot of the impact of the different graphics algorithms using that model that you wouldn't be able to see otherwise," Hansen said.

In addition to rendering experimental images, researchers have used the teapot to test surface modeling techniques popular in design. Brigham Young University's Tom Sederberg demonstrated "leaks" caused by prevalent modeling methods — with digital tea dripping through a digital gap between its bowl and spout — and made his own "watertight" teapot.

As an homage, teapots occasionally appear at the joints in past versions of Windows' "Pipes" screen saver, and one is featured in a nightmarish third dimension discovered by Homer Simpson in a Halloween-themed episode of "The Simpsons."

In Pixar's "Toy Story," when Hannah sits to tea with an armless Buzz Lightyear, she pours from a Utah teapot (perhaps a nod to Pixar co-founder and president Edwin Catmull, who was a graduate student at the U. at the same time as Newell). The teapot also has a cameo in Boo's bedroom in Pixar's "Monsters, Inc." and Pixar distributes wind-up walking teapots at industry conferences that later sell secondhand for upward of $100.

"The damn thing had legs," said Riesenfeld.

The Newells donated the actual teapot to the Computer History Museum in 1984, and it moved with the museum from Boston to Mountain View, Calif., in the mid-1990s.

It's prominently displayed next to the Xerox Alto — the first desktop computer — even though many visitors "have no idea why there's a teapot in a computer museum," said senior curator Dag Spicer.

Newell said he's proud to have a claim to fame, even if it strikes him as absurd. If he'd known his teapot was going to be shared so widely, he said, he'd have modeled it more carefully.

Riesenfeld said such understatement and modesty is "vintage Martin," adding, "Remember, he's English."

Twitter: @matthew_piper

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