Blog, Science

How Caffeine Accelerated The Scientific Enlightenment

The history of coffee is shrouded in mystery, though it’s thought to have roots in East Africa around 1000 years ago…

Long before the coffee beans became the commodity we know today, locals would have only known the leafy green plant by its fragrant white flowers. Caffeine wasn’t used as a psychotropic until the raw beans were consumed as a beverage.

In the beginning, coffee beans did not travel very far because the beans would get moldy. It took years of trial and error before people learned how dry and preserve the beans so they could be sold and moved long distances.

Europe was introduced to coffee in the 1600’s and when it arrived, the scientific revolution was just getting started – coffee arrived just in time to energize young scientists…

A Buzz In The Air…

To fully appreciate the history of coffee, we have to consider the history of Science…

The Dark Ages (c.500 – c.1500) came after the decline of the Roman Empire.

They are called the dark ages because there are very few historical documents to read, leading to historians thinking it was a time of intellectual darkness.

The light of Science that came with the Scientific Revolution & Period of Enlightenment brought light to the Dark Ages.

In 1543 Nicolas Copernicus published a paper titled, Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres. In his famous paper he described a heliocentric model of the Earth and the Sun. To the church he described why he thought the Sun was at the center of the universe and not the Earth.

The Catholic church did not like this idea at all. They claimed it was an effort to speak out against the church. Even Copernicus was internally torn with what he had suggested… Being a religious man, he did not want to insult the religious idea that God put the Earth in the center of the universe.

Copernicus was publicly humiliated for his ideas. But his words encouraged the scientific minds around Europe to set out and determine the truth…

In 1610 Galileo proved once and for all that Copernicus was right when he witnessed 4 moons orbiting around the planet Jupiter. The logic was that if there were moons around Jupiter, then the Earth wasn’t unique in this way and the universe can’t revolve around the earth if things orbited Jupiter too.

As a result of his observations and scientific reasoning, Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest…

Francis Bacon & His Story About a Horse

Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) was a scientist, philosopher and popular advocate for this new idea of ‘theory by observation.’ Prior to the mass adoption of the scientific method, the method used by most people was to simply prove their theories using just pure reasoning.

To illustrate the growing divide between reason and observation, Sir. Bacon often told a story…

A group of men are trying to determine the number of teeth of a horse. Sitting in the shade one morning these men watched the horse in the field. Together they discussed their old Greek books and tried to find a reasonable answer.

How many teeth does the horse have?

Later on in the afternoon, a local farm boy arrived and asked the men what they were discussing. Of course, once the boy learned what they were talking about, he offered the suggestion to simply look in the horse’s mouth and count the number of teeth it had.

Francis Bacon would probably laugh at this point for these men scorned and mocked the boy for his idea. They told him to get lost. How dare he insult their logic and the arguments of those who came before him. This boy likely didn’t even read so what could he know?

During the dark ages, there was a popular ideology: “everything important had already been discovered, all people needed to do was rediscover it.”

The old texts appeared to have all the answers.

The so-called ‘Era of Enlightenment’ was really just a shift in how people went about figuring things out. More people started trusting their own observations and thinking about things for themselves.

Scientists were at the forefront of this new ideology. The Scientific Method called for using experimental observations to try and poke holes in the established ideas. And through trial & error science made fast progress.

New ideas were bubbling under the surface of 17th-century society…

17th Century Coffee Fuel

Coffee Beans slowly made their way across Africa and into Europe…

In England, coffee found a home among the academics in Universities across the country. Bennett Allan Weinberg, co-author of the book World of Caffeine, writes:

Before the rise of coffee, the European drink of choice was alcohol… a depressant.

Then, all of a sudden, the drink of choice shifts to coffee… a stimulant.

The first coffee house in England opened in Oxford University around 1651.

Students and faculty drank the energizing and bitter drink well into the night.

Steven Johnson, a modern science author, gives these English coffee houses credit for stimulating the Scientific Revolution & this Era of Enlightenment:

Its not an accident that the ‘age of reason’ accompanies the rise of caffeinated beverages… The culture is moving from a depressant to a stimulant. […] The coffee house was a great hub of enlightenment era culture.

People would come into the coffee house, they would hangout, they would share ideas, they would come from different disciplines, a whole number of crucial events in enlightenment culture have a coffee house somewhere in them one way or another.

Intellectuals often met at these coffee shops to discuss with each other and share theories.

In the beginning, the shops were only really located on the university campus itself. They were often secretly referred to as ‘invisible colleges’, this was because the Monarch authority was strictly opposed to the influence of caffeine… The King believed that coffee threatened his rule because it helped people share anti-establishment ideas (which it totally did).

An Oxford professor at the time actually suggested that a student could learn just as much during a few nights in the coffee house than after weeks spent slaving over a textbook.

They are both best but I must confess, that he who has been well educated in the schools, is the fittest man to make good use of coffee house!

In those gloomy days of political strictness, the luxury and freedom of a coffee shop would have its best chance of protection under the shadow of a University. These institutions offered both intellectual growth and opposition to authority.

Bennett Allan Weinberg talks about the begging’s of a small ‘Coffee Club’ at Oxford. The members and routine of this club would eventually evolve and grow to become the Royal Society of London – notarized by the King for their mission of advancing scientific understanding.

Today the Royal Society is the most prolific scientific institution in the world.

Weinberg writes:

…The first participants [of the Oxford Coffee Club] included Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum, Sir Edmund Halley, the great astronomer, and Sir Isaac Newton, originator of the calculus, celestial mechanics, and the postulates of classical physics.

Before these men became the great scientists that we remember today, they were just curious students… it’s only natural that they enjoyed caffeine.

The members’ avid curiosity prompted hands-on scientific investigation. Sloane, Halley, and Newton are said to have dissected a dolphin on a table in the coffeehouse before an amazed audience.

Historical Note: The dolphin story is mentioned in a number of old books but there is historical discrepancy on who actually dissected the dolphin and exactly when and where it takes place. The Early History of Coffee Houses in England seems to refer to The Dolphin, as the name of a coffee house. While The Diary of Ralph Thoresby, F.R.S – Vol2 suggests that the dolphin was caught in the Thames and dissected under the supervision of Newton while he was president of the Royal Society. The group of scientists are then said to have gone for coffee after the dissection.

While I cannot say for sure what exactly happened, the Dolphin story is used to illustrate the times they were living in…. The world became a thing to observe – a place to experiment.

Edward Forbes Robinson recounts in his 1893 work, The Early History of Coffee Houses In England:

The connection between the earliest coffee clubs and the small group of students who formed the nucleus of the Royal Society is alike curious and intricate.

Indeed, at the outset, the distinction between them is so slight that they might almost be regarded as identical…

Many esteemed members of the University Coffee Clubs migrated to the big City of London and began to connect with each other. New groups of like-minded, smart people sharing coffee and ideas freely.

The group was soon granted a Royal Charter by King Charles in 1660, officially becoming the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.

The Royal Society is the most prestigious scientific academy in the world.

Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steven Hawking – these are just a few of their now 8,000+ members!

With subjects ranging from Astronomy & Physics, Anatomy & Neuroscience, Biology & Chemistry, to Engineering & Mathematics. Almost every significant scientific leap from the last 400 years can be traced back to the members of the Royal Society…

Next time you drink a cup, consider how the different the world would be without the wonderful effects of caffeine!