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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