3 min read

The 404 Error and Teapots – A ‘Potted’ History

7 April 2022

If you're reading this then there's a good chance you've just come from our 404 page when you were looking for some information on colocation or private cloud, sorry about that! (Or you're otherwise confused about what 404 errors have to do with teapots, and we're happy to help.) To apologise for the error on our site, we humbly offer you an explanation of the history of 404 errors.

The ‘404’ is probably the most recognised symbol that something has gone terribly wrong. In the case of 404 errors it’s with a webpage that can’t be found. But what is the 404 error (sometimes referred to as the last page of the Internet), and what does it have to do with teapots?

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The 404 Error and Teapots – A ‘Potted’ History Header Image

What is a 404 error?

A 404 error is the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) standard response code to indicate that your browser COULD communicate with a web server in a data centre of elsewhere, but that the page requested couldn’t be found. Early users of the Internet who noticed this error code speculated that it was numbered as such in reference to the eponymous ‘Room 404’, or that it was a room at CERN where (between 1981 and 1992), scientists in the Swiss facility were busy developing the components of the World Wide Web.

Unfortunately, in an interview with Wired magazine, Robert Cailliau, one of the scientists working with Tim Berners-Lee, dismissed the idea as “trivia” and that much of the mythology surrounding it was hogwash. More prosaically, he explained, because memory in systems back then was limited to just only 64k, it wasn’t practical to write long error messages for every situation. Instead, they “designated a numerical range for certain error categories”. Far from there being anything special about 404 errors, the ranges were assigned “according to the whims of the programmer”. Client errors (i.e. those not found on the server hosting the webpage) fell into the 400 range, and as such, the “404” designation was entirely arbitrary!

What does this have to do with teapots?!

So with the 400 range of error codes in mind, why is the HTTP client status code 418 officially recognised as “I’m a teapot”? This code originated as part of a long-standing ‘tradition’ from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Society (ISOC), who set many of the standards for the World Wide Web. Both the IETF and ISOC regularly publish RFCs (Request For Comments) documents which usually describe methods, behaviours, research, or innovations applicable to the working of the Internet.

Almost every April Fools’ Day (1st April) since 1989, the RFC Editor has published one or more humorous RFC documents. We use the word humorous lightly, as ‘classic’ examples include:

  • IP over Avian Carriers with QoS (RFC 2549)
  • The NULL Encryption Algorithm (RFC 241)
  • The Evil Bit (RFC 3514)
  • Debug networks with a rubber chicken (RFC 2321)

And of course, the most famous one: “Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol ‘HTCPCP/1.0 (RFC 2324)”. The RFC documentation actually states “this code should be returned by teapots requested to brew coffee”. Unlike RFC 2549 (using pigeons for internet traffic), this particular joke found its way into various website as an Easter Egg, including Google’s I’m a teapot.

Google Teapot Error Page Screenshot

So there you have it, our explanation of how teapots are related to internet error codes that we've used to distract you from the 404 page you came to on our site. But, let's try and get you back to where you were going. We're ready to help, whether you are looking for colocation or cloud services, need some guidance on your digital transformation, or just want some helpful resources. You can also use the search functionality on our site (click the magnifying glass in the top right hand corner), or get in touch to ask any questions you have.

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