How Caffeine Fueled the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution & the Modern World: An Introduction by Michael Pollan

According to the current research, caffeine, “contributes much more to your health than it takes away.” These words come from a thinker no less vigilant about the state of food-and-drink science than Michael Pollan, and perhaps they’re all you feel you need to know on the subject. In fact, you’re probably taking in some form of caffeine even while reading this now. I know I’m doing so while writing it, and this, according to the Pollan-starring Wired video above, gives us something in common with the central figures of the Enlightenment. “Isaac Newton was a big coffee fan,” says Pollan, and Voltaire “apparently had 72 cups a day. I don’t know quite how you do that.”

The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Revolution also owe much to the intellectual and commercial churn of the coffee house, an institution that emerged in 17th-century London. “There were coffee houses dedicated to literature, and writers and poets would congregate there,” says Pollan.

“There was a coffee house dedicated to selling stock, and that turned into the London Stock Exchange eventually. There was another one dedicated to science, tied to the Royal Institution, where great scientists of the period would get together.” Consumed in dedicated houses or elsewhere, the “new, sober, more civil drink was changing the way people thought and the way they worked.”

The relevant contrast is with alcohol, once an element of practically all beverages in Europe. Before caffeine got there, “people were drunk or buzzed most of the day. People would have alcohol with breakfast” — children included, since it was still healthier than contaminated water. This custom hardly encouraged clear, linear thought; Diderot, Pollan tells us, wrote the Encyclopédie while drinking coffee, but imagine the result, if any, had he been drinking wine. More than a quarter-millennium later, we have solid evidence that caffeine “does improve focus and memory, and the ability to learn,” if at the cost of a decent night’s sleep. Not that this seems to have bothered coffee-pounding Enlightenment thinkers: what’s a little tossing and turning, after all, when there’s a worldview to be revolutionized?

Pollan elaborates on the role coffee plays in our lives in his new book, This Is Your Mind on Plants. And separately see his short audio book, Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World.

Related Content:

The Curious Story of London’s First Coffeehouses (1650-1675)

Philosophers Drinking Coffee: The Excessive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

Honoré de Balzac Writes About “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee,” and His Epic Coffee Addiction

“The Virtues of Coffee” Explained in 1690 Ad: The Cure for Lethargy, Scurvy, Dropsy, Gout & More

The Hertella Coffee Machine Mounted on a Volkswagen Dashboard (1959): The Most European Car Accessory Ever Made

Michael Pollan Explains How Cooking Can Change Your Life; Recommends Cooking Books, Videos & Recipes

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • David Carey says:

    Totally agree with Michael Pollan: the pandemic has focused our workplace activities and productivity hubs around virtual, safe sources and the regular provision of coffee!

    I foresee revenue-starved pubs and retail spaces providing short-term hybrid meeting venues: quality caffeine, suoer-fast broadband, laptop and mobile recharging power supplies, plus a peaceful working environment… gone (hopefully) are the days of long, mind-numbing, repetitive commuting to urban centres. Welcome back the local coffee house, providing a short walk or bike ride from home, locals who are friends not work colleagues.
    What’snot to like?

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