It’s well known that coffee boosts productivity. Coffee is a stimulant; it speeds up cognitive function, boosts mood, and makes people more talkative, focused, energetic, and friendly. The outcome of grouping people together and serving them coffee is generally productive; I encourage you to try it! When this happened across the world in the 17th and 18th centuries, the productivity of philosophers, scientists, writers, and scholars flourished. This effect can be observed through the increase in significant works produced, and their documented fondness towards coffee and coffeeshops. We now refer to this period as the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment Era.
A World Without Coffee
Before the introduction of coffeehouses to Europe, most Europeans spent their leisure time getting drunk. It was commonplace for people, regardless of class or age, to drink throughout the day. Elites drank in private spaces while the urban poor frequented taverns and alehouses. This habit helped them stay connected to their communities and stay up to date on news and gossip. Unfortunately, there was a glass ceiling to the level of conversation in these establishments due to the lack of well-educated people. Even if there were intellectuals, these environments were not supportive of thoughtful, productive conversation; they were loud, dirty, and full of inebriated people. No one was their best or brightest self while drunk because alcohol slows cognitive function. This likely contributed to why this era, The Dark Ages, is known for its intellectual darkness.
The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen (1626-1729)
The Arrival of the Coffeehouse
The adoption of coffee led to an increase in intellectual productivity, as people were offered an alternative to imbibing in their free time. The sobriety of the consumers, coupled with the atmosphere of a coffeehouse, created the perfect environment for innovation and productive conversation.
Unlike the larger society, coffeehouses functioned as a meritocracy; inside, there was little to no class discrimination. Anyone was permitted entrance as long as they purchased a cup of coffee. This gave members of lower classes the opportunity to expose themselves to people and ideas outside of their normal spheres. Coffeehouses were soon nicknamed “Penny Universities.” For the price of a cup of coffee, one could enter and gain an education by listening to and participating in conversations.
Coffeehouses served as places to hold meetings, conduct business, engage in formal or informal debates, send and receive mail, read about and contest current events, discuss literature, play chess, and hold auctions. In some cases, coffeehouses served as stock markets and insurance company offices.
In fact, the insurance company Lloyd’s of London, the London Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange, first appeared in coffeehouses!
Lloyd's Coffeehouse in London, before it became Lloyd's of London
The Age of Enlightenment
The Enlightenment was a time of illumination; this era emphasized reason and science over ignorance and superstition. It was a period in which influential groups of scholars, writers, artists, and scientists began creating new works and ideologies instead of relying on old ones. Many of the famous enlightenment figures were coffee lovers. It is said that Voltaire, a famous French philosopher and writer who criticized religious institutions through witty satire, consumed 40 to 50 cups of coffee a day while writing his works.
Another enlightenment writer, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle—famous for writing popular scientific literature, drank coffee his entire life. When de Fontenelle was told that coffee was a “slow poison” by a doctor, he responded, smiling, “yes, I’ve been taking it every day for 80 years.”
We owe it to this era for producing so many historically significant pieces of literature, inventions, scientific discoveries, and revolutions that serve as a foundation to our current world; and we partially owe it to coffee and coffeehouse conversations for inspiring these creations.
Coffee continues to power thinkers today.
This is certainly true for mathematicians, among whom there is a popular phrase: "a mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems".
This also is true for knowledge workers. It's almost impossible to find an office full of knowledge workers today not stocked with coffee. One could even say, "a knowledge worker is a device for turning coffee into knowledge work".
One could imagine a similar phrase might be valid for many other types of doers and thinkers.
At Bottomless, our aim is supply coffee, without anyone needing to think about it.
Save their thought for powering the next enlightenment.