Tempest in a teapot: How a 15-year-old rallied programmers to save one of the web's oldest jokes (GOOG, GOOGL, MSFT)

teapot with the art of tea written

If you’ve spent any time browsing the web, chances are pretty good you’ve run into a page with an error code on it. 

You’ve likely seen numbers 404 (“not found”) or 403 (“forbidden”). 

Less commonly spotted is error code 418, which makes your browser proclaim “I’m a teapot.”

If it sounds like a joke, it is: Way back on April Fool’s Day in 1998, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) — a group that sets internet standards — proposed “a protocol for controlling, monitoring, and diagnosing coffee pots.” That document defined status 418 thusly: “Any attempt to brew coffee with a teapot should result in the error code ‘418 I’m a teapot.’ The resulting entity body MAY be short and stout.”

The error code has since become a running gag.

Go to Google.com/teapot, and see for yourself. Programming languages like Node.js and Google’s Go both include the 418 error as a little Easter egg, as does Microsoft’s ASP.NET framework. Someone even rigged a teapot to act as a web server, just so it can proudly display error 418 when you visit it.

On Thursday, however, the future of code 418 was briefly called into doubt. In a GitHub thread, Mark Nottingham, the chairman of the IETF working group that oversees hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), argued that the 418 error was never a part of the standard, which governs how web browsers communicate with web servers.  

google error 418.PNG

People should stop treating 418 as a core part of the HTTP standard, and free up the error number for more serious concerns, he said in his post.

I know it’s amusing, I know that a few people have knocked up implementations for fun, but it shouldn’t pollute the core protocol,” Nottingham wrote.

This prompted a swift, but fiery, debate of the future of the web’s teapot error code. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.

The pushback

The biggest champion of the teapot status was 15-year-old programmer Shane Brunswick. Brunswick, who will be a sophomore in high school this fall, started a “Save 418” movement, giving it the #Save418 hashtag.

The teapot error is something “that puts a smile on your face,” Brunswick told Business Insider. It’s a silly little thing from the early internet that’s worth preserving, he said. 

It’s a reminder that the underlying processes of computers are still made by humans,” Brunswick said. “It’d be a real shame to see 418 go.” 

Others pointed out that the teapot status has been treated as a part of HTTP for so long that removing it could actually cause technical problems for many sites. That scored technical points for Brunswick’s side. 

Nottingham wasn’t expecting such a big response, he told Business Insider. He just wanted to clarify 418’s status — or lack thereof. And he took Brunswick’s opposition in stride.

“I’m a bad, bad man,” Nottingham quipped on Twitter, with a link to Brunswick’s website.

While some have tried to chastise Brunswick for being disrespectful, Nottingham said that above all, he really appreciated that a teenager was taking such an interest in a standard that’s almost three decades old.

“I’m really happy that the next generation of developers still care about HTTP so deeply,” Nottingham said.

Happy ending

Ultimately, after a day of debate, Nottingham and Brunswick came to an accord that seems to have made everybody happy. On Friday afternoon, Nottingham filed a proposal to adopt 418 as an official HTTP code. If and when it’s approved, “I’m a teapot” will officially become a core part of the web.

In response, Brunswick updated his website: “Thanks for everything Mark Nottingham, you put up a good fight! =)”

The issue is now closed, with programmers cheering that their teapots are safe. For his part, Nottingham is keeping a healthy sense of humor about the situation. 

“If you ask me, it’s a tempest in a … ah, never mind,” Nottingham wrote in an email to Business Insider.

SEE ALSO: A hot startup is using $12 million from Andreessen Horowitz to pursue a ‘holy grail’ of web technology

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