Coffee in history: The surprising effects of your favourite caffeinated beverage

This is a guest post by William Judd.

Coffee beans in a heart shapeCoffee is the second most-traded good in the world, after petroleum, and it is a ubiquitous indulgence in the western world that’s consumed by millions each morning. It’s hard to become that big without turning up in some odd places, and coffee has definitely done it all. Did you know that coffee was a key part of the development of stock exchanges, computing equipment and even revolutions? Read on to find the secret life of coffee.

5. Coffee breaks

The coffee break is commonplace across all kinds of businesses in the western world and beyond; a routine social gathering where workers take a few minutes to talk with their colleagues and higher-ups over a warm cup of coffee. The coffee break’s popularity in the United States is thought to be down to the work of behavioural psychologist John B. Watson, who developed Behaviorism and later worked with Maxwell House, a large coffee brand in the United States. The coffee break may have its origins even further back this though, with Time writing in 1951 that coffee breaks were written into union contracts. The true origin of the coffee break apparently originated in the late 19th century in the small town of Stoughton, Wisconsin, where the wives of Norwegian immigrants took regular breaks with coffee. The town still celebrates Stoughton Coffee Break Festival each year.

4. Haitian Revolution

Saint Domingue was the most treasured colony of the French empire in 1791, with the Caribbean colony producing about 60% of the world’s coffee and 40% of the world’s sugar at the time. Around 452,000 slaves worked to harvest the coffee, controlled by only 40,000 whites and 28,000 free blacks and mulattos. While the white plantation owners were scared of a slave revolt and prepared accordingly, when the revolution came in 1791 they were unable to stop it. The conflict continued until 1804, when plantation owners were roundly defeated and the plantations burned. The revolution brought a stop to slavery in the colony, which was reformed as the independent Haitian Republic. The revolution was the most successful slave revolt in the Americas, and was one of only two successful revolts against European powers before the 19th century – the other being the United States. Coffee production has never recovered, but that seems a trivial price to pay.

3. Espresso machine

According to my part-Turkish flatmate, the first espresso machine was developed in Italy by an inventive business owner irritated with the long coffee breaks his workers took. He devised a machine that forced water at high pressure through coffee grounds, producing a single-serve coffee drink that could be produced quickly. While it’s a cool story, I sadly haven’t been able to find any citations for it. According to what I have been able to find, the first espresso machine patent for an industrial espresso machine was developed in 1884, but it wasn’t until 1901 that key improvements including single-serve were perfected. Espresso has continued to evolve as a rapid single-serve beverage, most noticeably with the development of encapsulated single-serve coffee pods in 1959.

2. Stock exchanges and businesses

Coffee houses quickly became popular places for wealthy businessmen and intellectuals to meet in Europe and the United States; indeed such establishments were nicknamed penny universities (after the cost of the drink and the quality of the discussion therein). The biggest stock exchange in the world was started by 64 traders at the Tontine Coffee House in New York; it is now called the New York Stock Exchange. A number of other massive firms also began life as coffee houses, including the East India Company (which started life as the Jerusalem Cafe) and Lloyds of London (which began as Lloyd’s coffeehouse).

1. Webcams

My favourite instance of coffee prompting scientific enquiry came in 1991, when the very first webcam was developed. It was engineered in the Computer Science department at Cambridge, where a camera was pointed at a coffee pot and hooked up the network. Computer scientists working in the university could connect to a web page to check the level of coffee in the pot, potentially saving themselves a wasted trip. The same coffee camera was still running in 2001, when the development of high-speed Internet allowed the past vision of video telephones to finally become a reality. The webcam has since become ubiquitous on portable computers like laptops, mobile phones and tablets although the coffee cam has since shut down.

Conclusion

So there you have it – five interesting instances of coffee in history. I hope you’ve discovered something interesting about coffee. If I’ve left anything off, let me know in the comments below!

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