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Universal Tea Machine


Welcome to the "Universal Tea Machine" – a gargantuan cross between a tea-making device, a primitive computer and a pinball machine. As tall as a giraffe, as long as a double-decker bus and as colourful as a fun fair, the UTM is a playful new way to engage with London's rich and vibrant history.

The UTM is a computer that relies on teamwork and calculation to produce the perfect cup of tea. By pulling a sequence of handles, you release a series of balls from their caddies at the top of the UTM. Through a simple set of commands, engaging the binary calculation of an adding machine, you then instruct the making of your ideal cuppa.

Silly and serious, interactive and spectacular, modern and historic, calculating and fantastical, the UTM encourages kids of all ages – from 1 to 100 – to engage with London's dynamic history of trade, calculation and tea-drinking.

The UTM can be experienced at the BT London Live event at London's Victoria Park, and is part of the capital's city-wide celebration of culture and sports during the London 2012 Olympics.

The UTM is designed and constructed by a team from The Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL.

"If there was a gold medal for pointless ingenuity, the UTM would be well in the running" (The Independent, Thursday 2 August 2012)

Project description


The Universal Tea Machine is a pavilion-scale adding computer that celebrates the British appetite trade, technological innovation and a good old cup of tea.

London, of course, has had a long and deeply-held love affair with the tea leaf. From the London Tea Auctions held at East India House, through the construction of some of the world’s largest dockyard infrastructure for its import and export, tea has not only been a British cultural phenomenon but also an important catalyst for the finance and trading that today comprise much of modern London.

The UTM also plays homage to the 'Universal Turing Machine' – invented by the late English mathematician Alan Turing – whose highly influential role in the development of computer science is being celebrated in the "Alan Turing Year 2012" to mark the centenary of his birth.


According to the UK Tea Council, some 165 million cups of tea are consumed in Britain every single day. Tea is a great symbol of the integration of diverse cultures into British society and daily life. It also remains inextricably linked with the idea of ritual, whether as quick dunk of the bag in a local café or the complex choreographies of a tea party.

The Universal Tea Machine reveals the importance of tea through public interaction and spectacle, not only by celebrating the ceremony of tea, but also by using the founding principles of computation in order to understand the composite parts of the great British cuppa.

The open underbelly of the UTM discloses the ingredients and machinery which conjure up the cup of tea in whichever way desired. This reveals the mystery of objects such as the famous bed-side 'Teasmade', a well-known British invention, creating its very own spectacle of the tea-making process.

Logic and Calculation

The Universal Tea Machine produces a display of calculation, as one of the fundamental logics of trading and computation.

London boasts a history of trade over many centuries, from thousands of small shops cradled within winding medieval streets, to massive Victorian docks spread across the east of the city, through to the capital's position today as one of the world’s great centres of finance.

In addition, Britain’s rich history in the development of computation and the calculations has constantly pushed it to the forefront of trade and commerce. This history includes such giants of computing as Charles Babbage and Alan Turing, whose pioneering research allowed the conception of the rapid interflows of data and trade which are essential components of present-day London.


The Universal Tea Machine involves game-playing, chance and mishap to invoke central components of London's vibrant cultural, trading and financial life. The UTM rewards collaboration and teamwork but can also be operated by a flexible and accurate individual.

By pulling a sequence of handles, you release a series of balls from their caddies at the top of the UTM. Through a simple set of commands, engaging the binary calculation of an adding machine, you then instruct the making your perfect cup of tea.

As the balls are released, they move down and hit logic gates where they come to rest until another ball is added, thus ejecting one ball, and moving one to the next logic gate. For example, to obtain the number 2, you would release two balls down the number 1 ball run, one of which would carry to the number 2 ball run, and one of which would be ejected. By reading the ejected balls through means of a series of LDR sensors, the UTM can tell if the correct calculation sequence has been performed, and hence, if so, release the ingredient which responds to that number.

Therefore through careful calculation and teamwork (and perhaps a degree of luck) a perfect cup of tea can be delivered straight to the hand of the operator.

Fail to follow instructions, however, and you run the risk of an 'imperfect' output! Expectant hands may reach out to find a cup containing milk save for a bobbing teabag, or an express delivery of sugar without any container...


A Smout Allen & You+Pea collaboration with Iain Borden


The Universal Tea Machine has been sponsored, supported and facilitated by a large number of individuals, institutions, companies and agencies. We are particularly grateful to the following:

  • The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL
  • The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, UCL
  • The Bartlett Workshop
  • London DMC (Digital Manufacturing Centre), The Bartlett
  • BT London Live
  • Daniel Fraser
  • Greater London Authority
  • Icon
  • Yeoryia Manolopoulou
  • George Paraskevopoulos

The Universal Tea Machine is fabricated by Westby & Jones.


The UTM is part of the BT London Live event at Victoria Park in the east of London. Access is free, but prior booking is recommended to guarantee site entry at peak times.

Please visit BT London Live for more details of the precise location, opening times and other visitor information.