The case of the disappearing teaspoons

by Kieran Healy on May 23, 2010

Morning and Afternoon Tea are the twin social hubs of Australian academia, so it’s only natural that a disturbing tearoom phenomenon would be noticed, investigated and subsequently published in the British Medical Journal: The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute.

Objectives To determine the overall rate of loss of workplace teaspoons and whether attrition and displacement are correlated with the relative value of the teaspoons or type of tearoom. Design Longitudinal cohort study. Setting Research institute employing about 140 people. Subjects 70 discreetly numbered teaspoons placed in tearooms around the institute and observed weekly over five months. Main outcome measures Incidence of teaspoon loss per 100 teaspoon years and teaspoon half life.

Results 56 (80%) of the 70 teaspoons disappeared during the study. The half life of the teaspoons was 81 days. The half life of teaspoons in communal tearooms (42 days) was significantly shorter than for those in rooms associated with particular research groups (77 days). The rate of loss was not influenced by the teaspoons’ value. The incidence of teaspoon loss over the period of observation was 360.62 per 100 teaspoon years. At this rate, an estimated 250 teaspoons would need to be purchased annually to maintain a practical institute-wide population of 70 teaspoons.

Conclusions The loss of workplace teaspoons was rapid, showing that their availability, and hence office culture in general, is constantly threatened.

Follow the link and scroll down for the long correspondence that followed. Notable contributions include “Teabags and forks are confounding factors“, “Communism and Biros“, “Global Implications, Impending Catastrophe“, and “Could teaspoons be the larvae of some unrecognised adult?



Henry 05.23.10 at 2:03 pm

No! No! No! As any fule kno, _safety pins_ are “the larval form of coathangers”:, which then pupate into bicycles. Whether one can combine Davidson with O’Brien to test the surmise that bicycles then metamorphose into human beings (and vice versa), is a question that pataphysical researchers have yet properly to investigate.

As an aside – I wonder whether the commenter hypothesizing about the larval form is drawing directly from Davidson’s short story, or, as I suspect, from the urban myth that it gave rise to (there is a short discussion of this myth in the intro to the story in the “Avram Davidson Treasury”: ).


George Berger 05.23.10 at 3:12 pm

My favorite item was the Bic Pen. When I quit academia I had a year’s. supply. Of course that’s only because those pens are so lousy that they either leak out or freeze up and refuse to function.


Substance McGravitas 05.23.10 at 3:26 pm

I was responsible for a lot of missing pens. I worked with someone like this.


Neil 05.23.10 at 7:58 pm

Morning and Afternoon Tea long disappeared from Australian universities with the exception of ANU. The time for social rituals long ago went the way of the teaspoons.


Omega Centauri 05.23.10 at 8:48 pm

I recall when I quit my first job after a year. I brought a whole box of pens that had migrated home with me back in. I don’t think they needed to get anymore for months afterwards.


BillCinSD 05.23.10 at 11:50 pm

Does Zaphod Beeblebrox also have a second hand teaspoon business?


John Quiggin 05.24.10 at 1:32 am

Neil is correct that morning and afternoon tea are gone on OZ. But, at least in happy institutions like UQ, they have been replaced by Continuous Coffee. Our building has a rooftop coffee shop (rated best on campus!) to cater to those of us on 6-doppio-a-day habits.

There would be at least a dozen on campus, plus strategically located coffee stands to allow recharge on cross-campus trips. Alas, the spoons problem remains unsolved.


Craig U. 05.24.10 at 4:34 am

Thanks for this, Kieran. I’m having a hard time deciding whether this article belongs in my syllabus for Introduction to Statistics next year or Methods of Empirical Research. I suppose I could use it for both.


Ginger Yellow 05.24.10 at 9:11 am

I don’t really understand the missing teaspoon phenomenon – which is definitely observable in my office. When I use a spoon I rinse it and put it back. What does everyone else do? I should understand it, though, because I tend to lose about one pen a day.


belle le triste 05.24.10 at 9:41 am

If we worked together all the pens would be discovered in my fluffy green pencil case, GY: I am world’s worst at this.

Father Brown tackles the issue


Dru 05.24.10 at 11:51 am

I recall the story of a canteen (or perhaps it was a British Restaurant) during the war, whose cutlery was forever disappearing. So they charged a deposit for it, and shortly found that they had a rapidly-increasing pile of cutlery.


roac 05.24.10 at 3:03 pm

All I know about Australian academia I learned quite recently from reading this book.

(After he wrote it, the author moved as far from Australia as he could get and still teach at a university.)

I don’t remember anything in it about teaspoons. But I just thought I’d mention it.


floopmeister 05.25.10 at 7:27 am

Have any been turning up bent in half and blackened on the bottom side? Staff members been nodding off in those interminable departmental meetings?

Just saying…

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