Thursday, January 8, 2009

Drinking Coffee Triggered Britain's Age of Enlightenment

My Book Shelf- 5

I heard this tongue-in-cheek explanation for Britain's age of enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution in an engrossing talk on NPR's Science Friday. The guest Steven Johnson discusses his book The Invention of Air, a story of science, faith and revolution set in mid-late 1700's Britain. The talk centers around British scientist Joseph Priestley the discoverer of oxygen, and his friendship with the American founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

So what's the connection between coffee and enlightenment. It was in keeping the British population alert and away from alcohol. Since the water was rarely safe to drink, people turned to drinking alcohol since daybreak and were inebriated by mid-morning. The introduction of coffee broke this pattern. Caffeine made people alert but more importantly Steven Johnson argues that the coffee houses served as a meeting place for bright people from various disciplines to gather, discuss, strike business deals and dream up innovative ways of understanding how the world works.

I have this fat, beautiful book on my shelf; Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, which elaborates this theme by detailing the cultural, economic and political landscape of 1700's Britain. Joseph Priestley was one of the five friends. Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin's grandfather), Matthew Boulton, James Watt and Josiah Wedgewood (Charles Darwin's maternal grandfather) were the other four.

And the five did meet often in coffee houses.

For in eighteenth century clubs are everywhere. Clubs for singing, clubs for drinking, clubs for farting; clubs of poets, and pudding-makers and politicians. One such gathering of like-minded men is the Lunar Society of Birmingham...

And on Britain's popular craze for science:

In exploring such matters Darwin and his friends were part of the great spread of interest in science that extended from the King and the Royal Society to country clergymen and cotton-spinners. When people talk of eighteenth century culture this is the swathe that is often missed out. the smart crowds thronging to electrical demonstrations; the squires fussing over rainfall gauges; the duchesses collecting shells and the boys making fire-balloons; the mothers teaching their children from the new encyclopedias with their marvelous engraved plates of strange animals and birds and plants.

Science was popular because it was 'gentlemanly' and cultured, and like all crazes it produced its share of jokes. But it was also a great spur to industry, helping Britain to surge ahead of other European nations.

So, an interest in science and innovation and their practical uses for industry was not restricted to eccentric scientists and industrialists. Britain's population across class and culture was largely a willing participant in this economic transformation.

In a way I found this paragraph anticipates the argument made by economist Gregory Clark in his book A Farewell to Alms, that the behavioral attributes of Britain's population had been changing toward greater industriousness for a few centuries before the Industrial Revolution. His theory is that over centuries disease killed of the poorer disproportionately. Their social position and trade was taken up by the literate and more productive sons of the wealthy, resulting in a population with a productivity rate that could break the Malthusian trap. This mechanism he has proposed - downward social mobility - is controversial. But whatever the reason, be it cultural evolution or genetic as Clark seems to favor, Britain's population was ripe and ready for enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Coming back to the talk, it mostly focuses on Priestley's American connection, but it was his work and inventions in Britain in the company of the Lunar Society that Priestley is known for.

Amid fields and hills the Lunar men build factories, plan canals, make steam engines thunder. They discover new gases, new minerals and new medicines and propose unsettling new ideas. They create objects of beauty and poetry of bizarre allure.They sail on the crest of the new.

Amongst the five friends, Joseph Priestley was the true scientist and idealist. He believed that science and knowledge could be used as a weapon to further democratic ideals of political and personal freedom and equality among men.

He writes in his preface to Experiments and Observations in 1772:

The rapid progress of knowledge which like the progress of a wave of the sea, or of light from the sun, extends itself not in this way or that way only, but in all directions, will, I doubt not, be the means, under God, of extirpating all terror and prejudice, and of putting an end to all undue and usurped authority in the business of religion as well as science; and all the efforts of the interested friends of corrupt establishments of all kinds, will be ineffectual for their support in this enlightened age.

More than two centuries on, I find this way of thinking is still very much relevant.

See: My Book Shelf


  1. Came here from IndiBlogger! :)

    THis is the 1st Science related article i'm reading on the web. it was a pleasant experience.

    Google has a dedicated team exclusively for maintaining G maps and G earth. If ISRO manages to have one such team at all, will there be enough dedication shown by the govt? what with all money vanishing in thin air!

    But I'm coming to think that ISRO, for its own purposes, uses Bhuvan, rather a much superior quality than what u've described. If it is ready to offer its knowledge to the world, it is a matter of acceptance and permissions that can keep it second to G services.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. the idea that coffee led to the Britain's enlightenment is completely ripped off from Wade Davis' citing Coffee as the reason for the French Revolution...

    listen to his interview here: