The Role of Coffee in the Enlightenment

I am currently reading the book The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America by Steven Johnson. It is a great read, mostly about Joseph Priestly, a friend of Benjamin Franklin and fellow renaissance man. Here is my own summary of the most interesting part of the first chapter:

The 18th century enlightenment period was an age of innovation. The sweeping excitement for learning followed a period of struggle and change. Many people dealt with the struggle through self-intoxication. The Enlightenment followed a change in preference of mind-numbing alcohol to stimulating coffee. The switch from alcohol to coffee had a significant effect in spurring innovation of the enlightenment. (This was also talked about in another book that I highly recommend, Cognitive Surplus)

Coffee has no long-term mental benefits, but it has been proven to improve short-term cognitive function. People in the 18th century started to drink in the coffee house which connected stimulated minds with the rowdy exchange of ideas. Thus, one of the most important inventions that jumpstarted innovation could have been the coffee house. Much innovative thought seems to have incubated in the coffee houses where men of science and politics and religion would exchange ideas.

According to the book  A History of the World in Six Glasses Tom Sandage writes:

"The impact of the introduction of coffee into Europe during the seventeenth century was particularly noticeable since the most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak ‘small beer’ and wine. … Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of their work improved. … Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries."

Now, I do not drink coffee because I follow health principles taught by my religion. What are the stimulants that I can use engage my brain? Here is a short list of things that I have come up with:

• Proper rest

• Healthy Diet

• Exercise

• Conversations about interesting ideas

• Writing in a journal

• Reading good books


• Writing ideas down immediately

• Taking vitamins

• Drinking Jamba juice with energy boost.

If you have any more ideas, help me add to this list...