Learning from the East
Coffee and tea were not the only commodities to be brought to England in the 16th and 17th centuries by traders with the East. Alongside these food items scientific ideas, texts and instruments were being imported to Europe.
|European celestial floor globe with constellation and star names given in Latin, Greek and Arabic. © NMM|
Since the fall of the Roman Empire, scientific learning from ancient times - astronomy and mathematics in particular - had been taken up and developed in the Arab world. It had been all but forgotten in most of Europe.
The same trade routes that brought tea and coffee allowed Europe to get back in touch with science and mathematics. Astronomy from the East was for a time highly prized. It was not unusual to see Arabic script on European instruments, particularly on globes, giving the names of stars and constellations.
Origin of the Royal Society
While many coffee houses became the offices and meeting rooms of traders and insurers, others became centres of scientific debate and teaching. The Royal Society is said to have started in a coffee house in Oxford.
|Edmund Halley. © NMM|
Men such as Edmund Halley (second Astronomer Royal, today best known for the comet that bears his name) and Robert Hooke would often meet in coffee houses, such as Jonathan’s in Exchange Alley, to compare ideas.
Halley's diving bell
One such idea, which was actually carried through, was Halley’s invention of the diving bell. This was a device designed to allow experiments to be carried out at the bottom of the Thames.
|Edmund Halley’s diving bell. © NMM|
Halley's experiment was recreated on 'What the Stuarts and Tudors did for Us' (BBC). It involves lowering a large bell vertically into the water, so that air is trapped in the bell. This allows the observer inside to breathe and to carry out experiments.
Science for the people
Another way in which science played an active part in the life of coffee houses in the 17th and 18th centuries was through the regular lectures that would take place inside them.
|James Ferguson, astronomer and popularizer of astronomy, 1710-1776. © NMM|
Interest in learning about science, and astronomy and mathematics in particular, grew enormously after the death of Isaac Newton. Lots of people wanted to be able to understand his work.
Out of this interest came the lecturers. These included people like James Ferguson, who put on spectacular shows explaining scientific principles and techniques to a lay audience. They often used apparatus they had built themselves, which could then be bought or commissioned from them by members of the audience.
|Grand orrery. © NMM|
One popular piece of demonstration apparatus often used by coffee house lecturers was the planetarium. A planetarium is a model demonstrating the movement of the planets around the Sun in our solar system, sometimes in relation to the surrounding constellations in the zodiac. It is often called an orrery after Charles Boyle, the 4th Earl of Orrery, for whom the first planetarium was made. Many members of the public bought them to make themselves look knowledgeable.
The Penny Universities
Coffee houses were often called the Penny Universities because of the cheap education they provided. For an entrance fee of one penny visitors could read the newspapers, listen to lecturers and engage in discussion on any manner of disparate topics.
|John Flamsteed. © NMM|
Not everyone approved of the openness-to-all attitude of the coffee house. John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, disapproved of the behaviour of the likes of Robert Hooke. He thought it was ungentlemanly to be mixing with working men – but for many it offered new opportunities.
|View from One Tree Hill: The Queen's House and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. © NMM|
Flamsteed’s assistant, James Hodgeson, was one such example. He had started out as an assistant to John Flamsteed at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Hodgeson took observations and carried out calculations on those observations to make them into useful data for navigators. As a lecturer in the coffee houses he was able to make enough money to give up his job at Greenwich, work more sociable hours and travel the country.