December 29, 2003


The internet in a cup: Coffee fuelled the information exchanges of the 17th and 18th centuries (The Economist, Dec 18th 2003)

WHERE do you go when you want to know 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: you log on to the internet. Three centuries ago, the answer was just as easy: you went to a coffee-house. There, for the price of a cup of coffee, you could read the latest pamphlets, catch up on news and gossip, attend scientific lectures, strike business deals, or chat with like-minded people about literature or politics.

The coffee-houses that sprang up across Europe, starting around 1650, functioned as information exchanges for writers, politicians, businessmen and scientists. Like today's websites, weblogs and discussion boards, coffee-houses were lively and often unreliable sources of information that typically specialised in a particular topic or political viewpoint. They were outlets for a stream of newsletters, pamphlets, advertising free-sheets and broadsides. Depending on the interests of their customers, some coffee-houses displayed commodity prices, share prices and shipping lists, whereas others provided foreign newsletters filled with coffee-house gossip from abroad.

Rumours, news and gossip were also 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.

For all the greater ease of access, volume of info available and self-correcting possibilities of the net, the coffee-house was superior by virtue of human contact.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 29, 2003 9:39 AM

I understand the Austrian coffeehaus began with sacks of beans abandoned by retreating Turks. And the Net was of course designed to discomfit Soviets. My point is...I need some more coffee.

Posted by: Noel at December 29, 2003 10:06 AM

Try to imagine Samuel Johnson in a chatroom!

Posted by: R.W. at December 29, 2003 11:42 AM

Mr. Judd;

In that case, should we all drop by later this week for a cup?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 29, 2003 1:03 PM

I was talking with my physics adviser Friday and this came up, in the context of independent bookstores.

I said that the survivors had become in a sense coffeehouses, and that this completed a circle back to the coffehouses as publishing centers.

But, at least in the bookstores I've been in, there isn't much lively discussion amongst the patrons, and no business gets done.

My adviser, who is CEO of a couple of virtual businesses with employees scattered from California to New York, in the past made the point that trust is the absolute, rockbottom desiderata of virtual business.

Trust is, of course, unnecessary for doing business the old fashioned way. We substitute contracts.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 29, 2003 2:04 PM

Wonder what the going price was for a Grande Carmel Frappucchino with whipped cream in the late 1600s...

Posted by: John at December 29, 2003 2:42 PM


You're always welcome!

Posted by: oj at December 29, 2003 4:34 PM


Your weight in gold.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at December 30, 2003 10:37 AM

Nah ..i just watch the evening news ...than again news to me is Britney Spears getting married and have it annulled all on same day. ;)

Posted by: Cialis at January 7, 2004 3:53 AM