The Human Condition:

Coffee Took Us to the Moon – February 23, 2014

Coffee cup

Back when my wife was working at the Bancroft Library on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, she put together an exhibit of books on the history of coffee and tea. One of the insights this exhibit brought home was that, until Europeans began importing these beans and leaves from the Far East, brewing them up in boiling water, and drinking the result, they had to make do with drinking the possible alternatives.

The water resources around human habitations have always been marginally potable, at least until the advent of modern plumbing and treatment plants.1 People since the fall of Rome had been drinking water purified—well, at least somewhat sanitized—by fermentation into a mildly alcoholic beverage, where the alcohol helped to kill germs, kept bacteria and algae from growing, and made the liquid drinkable. It wasn’t that the Europeans were drinking beer and wine just with dinner; they were drinking small beer, cider, and wine with breakfast and lunch, too. Everyone had a mild buzz on all day long and was pretty plotzed by the late afternoon.

People imbued with the glow of intoxication can still accomplish a lot. The Europeans managed to invent many simple and useful machines like the wheeled plow, the stirrup, and other equine tack. They invented a good deal of common law and rough justice in the early part of the last millennium. They rediscovered classical thought in art and literature, learned mathematics from the Arabs along with the concept of zero and the balancing equations of algebra, adopted printing and gunpowder from the Chinese, and studied the stars for themselves and refined their calendars. They raised up local poets like Dante, Petrarch, and Shakespeare as well as painters like Michelangelo and Da Vinci. They founded universities, had themselves a Renaissance and a Reformation, burned a great many heretics, and lived in a near-continuous state of war.2

Still, alcohol is a depressant. It brightens you up for a little while—long enough to say funny and obnoxious things at parties—and then it puts you to sleep. Coffee and tea, on the other hand, are pure stimulants. The caffeine perks you up, sharpens your wits, gives you laser-like insight, and makes you coldly daring.3 When coffee and tea began trickling into Europe in the early 17th century, it created a cultural revolution. People still went to the weinstube, the ale house, and the pub in the evening for their nip of alcohol. But during the day most people—at least those in the cities not chained to the land—could go to the coffeehouse or the tearoom for their cuppa.

Coffeehouses became places of trade and economic invention. Lloyd’s Coffee House in London is credited with the start of modern insurance underwriting, which changed people’s concepts of risk from bad luck or the will of malevolent gods to a proposition that can be analyzed mathematically and hedged with judicious amounts of investment. At about the same time, Isaac Newton in England and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz in Germany were taking mathematics to a whole new plane with the invention of calculus. Galileo in Italy and Newton in England were redefining optics, physics, and astronomy. Anton van Leeuwenhoek in the Netherlands was opening up a new world for biology with his “animalcula” or microbes. And a century later Antoine Lavoisier was doing experiments that would refine the haphazard guesses alchemy into the rigorous relationships of chemistry. I can’t say that all of them were coffee drinkers, but suddenly the time was right for bright-eyed people to sit down and think new and daring thoughts.4

So the scientific revolution kicked off at just about the time coffee and tea came to Europe. Ideas about the nature of knowing—literally, “science”—had been incubating since Aristotle and the Arab philosophers, and got a push from Roger Bacon in 13th-century England. These notions now came together with philosophers like Descartes, Galileo, and Newton and were eventually formalized as the Scientific Method. Observe, hypothesize, and experiment—and stand ready to disprove your hypothesis—became the way to know what was happening in the real world. The printed page, based on movable type born in 15th-century Germany, became the medium to disseminate all this new knowledge. The Europeans subsequently had an Enlightenment, which encompassed philosophical and political thought as well as scientific, and sparked the secularization of literature, art, and music.

Humanity put its foot on an escalator of understanding that shot our western civilization forward into the future. One discovery, recorded in a pamphlet or book and disseminated through space and time by printing, led to other discoveries by other minds in other places and times. Soon a body of solid knowledge formed and began accreting, like the layers of coral in a reef. That reef has been growing without pause ever since. It has flowered into new branches of knowledge and their stepchildren, new technologies. We picked up the steam engine—the first mechanical contrivance and motive power that didn’t depend on animal muscles, the kinetic energy of water flowing downward under gravity, or the pressure of wind pushing on some kind of sail—in the 18th century, and then the practical uses of electricity in the 19th century, and we have literally never looked back.5

The notion of distributing risk through insurance underwriting by personal subscription, pioneered at Lloyd’s Coffee House, quickly morphed into selling shares of stock in new ventures. That changed capitalism from the province of a few rich banking families like the Medici and the Mellons to a process of investing by anyone with spare cash and funding for anyone with a good idea. The orderly means of acquiring capital for a business venture, keeping it secure, paying for its use, and ultimately distributing the proceeds back to shareholders became the foundation of a system that has spread wealth through all classes, created jobs and opportunities even for people without that spare cash, and advanced the world immeasurably.6

Coffee and tea changed our culture, and their use has not at any time faded away. The English still make a ritual of their late-afternoon, low-blood-sugar meal served with tea. Americans are offered coffee or tea as accompaniment with every meal in every restaurant. Coffee shops are the new gathering places for people communicating on the internet—sitting in a real space, working in virtual space—and any woe betide any Starbucks or Peet’s franchise that doesn’t offer WIFI. In the break rooms of every corporation in America, the one perk offered for free or massively subsidized is coffee and tea. And every business negotiation starts with a polite offer of coffee or tea, not with small beer and cider. Everyone in the corporate world knows that keeping employees jazzed with caffeine is good for productivity and good for business.

The American space program may have invented Tang as a way to serve orange juice with its Vitamin C content inside a space capsule, but it was coffee and tea that provided the substructure of math and physics which designed the rockets, predicted their orbits, and powered the thinking of the engineers who brought it all together.

I’m not saying that all of this could not have happened without the arrival of coffee and tea in Europe and then their transference to America. Certainly, people plotzed on alcoholic beverages could have invented telescopes, calculus, steam engines, and electric generators. Civilized society has always included its share of inebriates who can’t start the day without a taste of liquor or keep running all day long without nips at flasks hidden about their persons and hits from the bottles in their desk drawers. But they are not the majority. Most of us have long since sobered up, drink from a cup of coffee at our desks or in the break room, and don’t unwind with alcohol until after business hours.

So long as the coffee and tea keep flowing, we’ll continue developing new sciences, finding new ways to fund and manage our businesses, and keep sending out space probes. When humanity finally sets up a colony on the Moon or Mars, among the first imports from Earth—along with bottled oxygen and water—will be coffee beans and tea leaves to brew in that water and make the colonist’s preferred beverage. The hydroponic gardens under the agricultural dome will have its stimulants section. When we go to the stars, we’ll take along the seeds of coffee and tea trees. And if some kind of weird biological plague were ever to decimate the coffee and tea plantations of Earth, look forward to the failure of the Enlightenment, the end of civilization, and a new dark age.

1. In large towns and cities, you can’t dig your wells far enough away from the privies to find unpolluted groundwater. And everyone’s piece of the river is downstream from someone else’s, and so it’s polluted with the runoff from their outhouses, farms, and sewers. The only people who had a really good solution to this problem was the Romans, who located pure springs in the hills near their major cities and built aqueducts that ran for miles across hills and valleys to bring springwater, fresh and aerated, to holding tanks and public fountains inside the city.

2. But continuous war has been the case right up to the present, too.

3. You can tell I love the coffee bean in all its forms, can’t you?

4. Nicotine deserves some credit here, too. It came to Europe from America in the 16th century and caught on at about the same time coffee and tea did. Nicotine is readily absorbed into the bloodstream and causes release of the hormone epinephrine, which stimulates the nervous system, and the hormone beta-endorphin, which dulls the sense of pain. But then, like alcohol, these stimulations drop off, and nicotine has an overall depressant effect. Still, nothing goes so well with a cup of coffee as a cigarette, and tobacco had a hand in kicking science in the pants.

5. See Coming at You from October 24, 2010.

6. See The Economy as an Ecology from November 14, 2011.