Coffee houses in London
|Coffee houses and science|
Learning from the East
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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