It’s a fascinating thing…something I have personally pondered from a long time… the thought that birthed Disruptive Thinking, Microclimates, and Leadership for Strategic Change.
Did the coffeehouses in 17th century England lead to an acceleration in innovation and unusual levels of creativity?
English coffeehouses in the 17th and 18th centuries were public social houses where people would meet for conversation and commerce while drinking coffee. For the price of a penny, customers purchased a cup of coffee and admission. Travellers introduced coffee as a beverage to England during the mid-17th century; previously it had been used by experimentalists for its alleged medicinal properties. Coffeehouses also served other modern beverages, such as tea and chocolate.
Stellar podcast discussing the significance of the coffeehouse, the enlightenment, and where good ideas come from
Where do good ideas come from. “…until the rise of the coffeehouse you had a population that was effectively drunk all day….switching from a depressant to a stimulant… you would have better ideas…” – Steven Johnson
Socially similar to English alehouses or inns, the historian Brian Cowan describes English coffeehouses as “places where people gathered to drink coffee, learn the news of the day, and perhaps to meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concern.” However, the absence of alcohol created an atmosphere in which one could engage in more serious conversation than in alehouses.
Topics discussed included politics and political scandals, daily gossip, fashion, current events, and debates surrounding philosophy and the natural sciences. Historians often associate English coffeehouses, during the 17th and 18th centuries, with the intellectual and cultural history of the Age of Enlightenment: they were an alternate sphere for intellectual thought, supplementary to the university. Political groups frequently used English coffeehouses as meeting places.
Oxford, possessing the unique combination of exotic scholarship interests and a vibrant experimental community, was the first English city to establish a coffeehouse. A Jewish entrepreneur named Jacob established the first English coffee house in 1650, which he named the Angel (although further research suggests perhaps it was the Grand Cafe, photos above and to the right). According to Cowan, Oxford was seen as an important fixture for the creation of a distinctive coffeehouse culture throughout the 1650s. The first coffeehouses established in Oxford were known as penny universities, as they offered an alternative form of learning to structural academic learning, while still being frequented by the English virtuosi who actively pursued advances in human knowledge. Cowan states: “The coffeehouse was a place for like-minded scholars to congregate, to read, as well as learn from and to debate with each other, but was emphatically not a university institution, and the discourse there was of a far different order than any university tutorial.” Despite later coffeehouses being far more inclusive, early Oxford coffeehouses had an air of exclusivity, catering to the virtuosi. Ellis concludes, “(Oxford’s coffeehouses’) power lay in the fact that they were in daily touch with the people. Their purpose was something more than to provide a meeting-place for social intercourse and gossip; there was serious and sober discussion on all matters of common interest.”
Rumors, news and gossip were carried between coffee-houses by their patrons, and sometimes runners would flit from one coffee-house to another within a particular city to report major events such as the outbreak of a war or the death of a head of state. Coffee-houses were centres of scientific education, literary and philosophical speculation, commercial innovation and, sometimes, political fermentation. Collectively, Europe’s interconnected web of coffee-houses formed the internet of the Enlightenment era.
So…where do you go today when we want the latest business news, follow commodity prices, keep up with political gossip, find out what others think of a new book, or stay abreast of the latest scientific and technological developments? Today, the answer is obvious: we log on to the internet. Three centuries ago, the answer was just as easy: you went to a coffeehouse….Are we missing something today? I recall discussing issues in the Commons while at Hoover… or debating concepts of leadership at a Junto in the 100th Ops Group at RAF Mildenhall… is the internet better? Or do we need the “coffeehouse?” I know we need more good ideas…
much data courtesy of TED talks, Wikipedia, and The Economist… links above