PortCities London
UK Bristol Hartlepool Liverpool London Southampton
You are here:  PortCities London home > The working Thames > Trades, industries and institutions
Text Only About this Site Feedback
Explore this site
About maritime London
Early port
Tudor and Stuart port
18th-century port
19th-century port
20th-century port
People and places
Port communities
Crime and punishment
Leisure, health and housing
Thames art, literature and architecture
The working Thames
London's docks and shipping
Trades, industries and institutions
Port of science and discovery
Historical events
Ceremony and catastrophe
London in war and conflict
Fun and games
Things to do
Timeline games
Matching games
Send an e-card

Coffee houses in London

In the beginning
The start of the Stock Exchange
Coffee houses and the sea
Coffee houses and science
The end
Send this story to a friend Send this story to a friend
Printer-friendly version Printer-friendly version
View this story in pictures View this story in pictures

Coffee houses and science

Learning from the East

European celestial floor globe with constellation and star names given in Latin, Greek and Arabic
View full size imageEuropean celestial floor globe with constellation and star names given in Latin, Greek and Arabic. © NMM
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. 

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

Edmund Halley.
View full size imageEdmund Halley. © NMM
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.

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

Edmond Halley’s Diving Bell
View full size imageEdmund Halley’s diving bell. © NMM
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. 

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

James Ferguson, astronomer and populariser of astronomy, 1710-1776.
View full size imageJames Ferguson, astronomer and popularizer of astronomy, 1710-1776. © NMM
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.

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.
View full size imageGrand 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

John Flamsteed.
View full size imageJohn Flamsteed. © NMM
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.

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.
View full size imageView 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.

Page 4 of 5. Previous page Next page


Find out more
StoriesCoffee houses and insuring ships
New commercial and financial institutions are created to meet the needs of London's merchant community.
StoriesShip broking and the Baltic Exchange
The 18th century witnesses important developments in the ship broking sector, the most important of which was the establishment of the Baltic Exchange.
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
Legal & Copyright Partner sites: Bristol Hartlepool Liverpool Southampton About this Site Feedback Text Only