Jan 14, 2015

The Cult of the Coffee Cup

Let's face it, coffee is the life blood of programming. Oh, you can take your caffeine in other forms, Jolt cola was very popular at one time, I know a fellow who drank Mountain Dew by the gallon. There are other, newer,  powerful stimulant drinks out there And, of course, there are people who swear by Dexedrine and Adderall. Personally I am not a fan of Dexedrine or Adderall. Speaking from experience they are bad for both your mental and physical health. 

If you are in tech at all you will have noticed that we all drink a lot of coffee and as a result there is a Cult of the Coffee Cup. Since we all drink coffee one way to exert our individuality is to own a unique coffee cup. Companies that advertise to us have learned this and give out coffee cups as trade show swag. Companies that employee us have learned the same thing and give out coffee cups as rewards for completing projects or serving on a design team or.. or.. Hey if it weren't for the desirability of coffee cup swag Cafepress.com wouldn't be in business, would they? That is what they are for? Right? How else would my wife have managed to get me a grumpy programmer T-shirt and coffee cup for Christmas?

I just recently broke my Siggraph 2000 coffee cup. I loved that cup. It can not be replaced. I have a coffee cup from a company I worked for more than 30 years ago. And another from the company I worked for before that. Coffee cups mark our time in the tech world. They prove that we were there, we did that. Sometimes they prove that we were stupid enough to work for that company or take that class.

T-shirts are used much the same way as coffee cups, and they are more popular with some people because they are much more blatant, more out there and in your face. But, lets face it, T-shirts do not age well. A 30 year old T-shirt is a wash rag, not a garment. That's why I have gone through several "You can go to hell, and I will go to Texas" Davy Crockett T-shirts. 

Ok, I figured out the Cult of the Coffee Cup while working at the University of Utah as an undergraduate. I started collecting coffee cups and trying to walk around with subtly odd cups just to see how people would react. It takes a very observant person to get a subtle sight joke. People who got the jokes, and told me about it, were worth knowing.

When I moved on from college I went to work for Sperry Univac corporation. I was working in a converted manufacturing plant with bare concrete floors, high ceilings, and metal partitions that were only a few inches higher than my desk. We were crammed in four desks to a cube. The place did not have a great work environment. But, the work was fun, the folks were mostly interesting, and my managers were actually pretty good. Not to mention that it paid pretty well for Salt Lake City in the '70s. Oh yeah, did I mention that the place had no windows? During the winter I came to work in the dark and left in the dark without ever seeing the sun.

At Univac we had access to lots of coffee. Often stale, semi cold, poor quality coffee. But, it had caffeine and it was black and it kept the brain ticking over. Of course, everyone had a coffee cup or three. A few people had unique cups, and they were admired for it. Most had pretty generic cups that looked like they had been "borrowed" from the cafeteria. 

One day I was looking for a book at the U of U book store and came across a shelf of U of U themed beer steins. One of them was shaped just like a coffee cup. This cup was unique. This cup could hold nearly a quart (US). I bought it and took it to work and started using it as my coffee cup. I had the biggest coffee cup on plant. 

That huge coffee cup messed with people heads. One day I was filling that cup and a fellow walked up, looked at the cup, and took a startled step back. I said some thing like "I'll be done in just a minute" meaning that I would be done with the coffee pot in a minute. That poor fellow said "My" then stammered "that is a big coffee cup!". To which I replied truthfully "Yes, I have the biggest one on plant." He blushed. He turned and walked away.

For some odd reason I found out later that behind my back people were referring to me as "the guy with the big one." I do not think that hurt my career at all.

Many years later I was working for the company now known as AT&T. At the time they were SBC (Southwestern Bell Corporation). There is a long story about how one of the baby bells grew up and murdered it mother company. But, I am not going to tell it here.

SBC had the coffee habit something fierce. It came by it naturally from the need to have people fixing telephone lines on high poles during blizzards on the tops of mountains. SBC believed in coffee. Really bad coffee. They also believed in coffee cups. They gave out coffee cups to acknowledge truly outstanding accomplishments. Most accomplishments only rated plaques or nice formal letters. But, on occasion, they gave out coffee cups.

I was in Seattle visiting Microsoft (weirder in person than from far away) and wound up walking through a shopping mall. The mall had a Seattle's Best Coffee shop and I got a nice double espresso there. I could not help noticing that their initials were SBC and since I worked for a different SBC I decided to see if they sold coffee cups.

SBC sells coffee cups. I found the most amazing solid black coffee cup with the letters SBC in faux gold leaf surrounded by a laurel of faux gold leaf holly leaves. It was a thing of beauty. I bought it and took it to work.

For years after that I was questioned about that cup. I was stopped in the halls by corporate executives and asked what I had had to do, who I had had to kill, to be given a cup like that? I always answered truthfully that I bought it at Seattle's Best Coffee in Seattle. The look of stunned confusion on their faces was worth telling the truth. Messing with people's preconceptions is good for their mental health, isn't it?

Don't get me wrong. I am a member of the Cult of the Coffee Cup. But, once you know about something like that, it is OK to have a little fun with it!


  1. Too bad Mobileum never made coffee cups.

    1. Yeah, as I was leaving I collected a whole pile of little calculators and squeeze toys from a box of left over trade show swag. But, I really wanted a Mobileum coffee cup.

  2. I drink coffee sparingly, but always had a few cups available. I worked for an aerospace firm until my mid thirties. Projects rewarded the teams with coffee cups. Small teams in some phases of the projects lead to some very limited numbers of some cups. Throughout my career you would see a fellow cup holder and toast salute. And because of security requirements, you never talked about the project, you just saw the logo or designation on the cup. (Something like P-407) After moving on to the outside world, my coffee cups still draw a salute from vendors/suppliers and occasionally other employees. I also inherited some cups from a few retired employees, rewards for being patient helping the slipstick engineers into the computer age. Those cups always get some good comments. Do you know where that cup came from ? Yes, I do !

  3. As a fellow Utah programmer, I'm the only one in my office with a coffee cup!

  4. Best cup of coffee I ever had was in Lubbock, Texas, 1979, at the hotel I was staying while interviewing with TI. And I wasn't a coffee drinker then, and for many years thereafter. Yet I remember it to this day! 22 years later (and by then a devoted coffee drinker) I was fortunate to work for a VP of Engineering who supplied us with organically grown coffee. Nowadays I would not work for a company that provided "bad" coffee.

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