Today, the internet is filled with live video streams. Whether you want to watch someone get off from across the country or watch a comet orbiter die from hundreds of millions of miles away, there are countless webcams just a quick search away. That wasn't the case in the early 90s, but there were a few primitive live video feeds around back then. One of these was The Amazing Fishcam, a video feed of an aquarium in Mountain View, California that showed one jilted snapshot of fish every few seconds.
The Fishcam is a living relic. It’s been ticking along, one frame a time, for 24 years. The website looks basically like it did in 1994, when Lou Montulli, the founding engineer for Netscape, set up the camera in the first Netscape office, as a way to experiment with building the early version of the web.
To most people who watched Fishcam, it must have seemed like just a cute hobby. But it was testing some serious work inside Netscape. “We were designing a lot of technologies to enhance digital commerce, to make the web more practical and useful, and a lot of the things I was doing as the fishcam became a test platform for that,” Montulli told me in a phone interview.
This janky little 40-gallon tank became the test platform for a lot of Netscape’s features, and tools that would shape the world wide web for decades: Looping animated GIFs, the ability to upload photos to the internet, various protocols like those in modern RSS and social network feeds, and dynamic HTML pages were all influenced by feedback from people around the world watching a couple dozen online fishes.
When Montulli and a few friends moved to Mountain View, there was a now-closed fish store down the block from their offices called Seascapes (which Montulli speculated could have influenced the naming of Netscape.) They’d walk by the store almost every day, he said. “Eventually I said ‘Screw it, I'll just buy a tank and move it into in my office.’”
Compared to live streams of today, which can broadcast from the seafloor or an eagle’s nest at high resolutions, the Fishcam is rudimentary. Today, the Fishcam is still streaming from the office of cloud storage company Zetta (which Montulli co-founded) in Sunnyvale, California, but it updates a little bit faster now than it did originally, refreshing every second instead of every three or four seconds like it did in the 90s, on a 14.4k modem. Otherwise, the website doesn't use any technology that wasn't available in 1999. “I've tried to keep it kind of retro,” Montulli said.
Montulli was inspired by the now-defunct Trojan Room coffee pot webcam that computer scientists at the University of Cambridge in England started streaming in 1991. According to its website, the original Fishcam used an SGI Indycam attached to a SGI Indy workstation, a powerful computer at the time. Back in 1994 it produced a 640 by 480 pixel image and took nearly 20 seconds of CPU power to capture, overlay with text, and post to the web.
The cam was getting around 100,000 unique visitors at day at its peak between 1994 and 1996, according to Montulli—when only a few million households had access to the World Wide Web.
“People hadn't really had the opportunity to see live video over the internet before.” Visitors to the offices would suggest new features, and the original page had a feedback section where viewers could contact Montulli directly. It got so popular that Montulli added a browser shortcut to get to Fishcam—you could use the hotkeys CTRL+ALT+F in Netscape Navigator to get to the cam.
The tank, low-tech as it is, has gone through a few changes. Around the time Netscape went public in 1995, he upgraded to a 350 gallon tank. There might not be any scene more stereotypical of 1996, during the Silicon Valley dot-com boom, than the sight of Netscape founding engineer Lou Montulli standing in his swimsuit in the middle of the office, preparing to scuba-dive in a 350-gallon aquarium in front of an experimental live video feed, streamed on the internet.
In 2009, it got another big upgrade, when Montulli set up a new 600-gallon tank at Zetta headquarters. That's the tank we're looking at today.
Montulli told me he keeps it running now for the nostalgia, mostly. “And if I’m gonna have a fish tank, they might as well be out on the internet enjoying their fame.”