Quick Tidbit: Coffee Houses

This week, I worked a two day gig as an IT person (I know, the idea is laughable) for an Executive Summit. For discretion’s sake, I won’t tell you what the company was called, but I will tell you the key note speaker was excellent.

This is a nerd who looks slightly better than I did.

The speaker’s name was Steven Johnson. He’s written 7 books, the most recent of which is called Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

Mr. Johnson was an incredibly engaging speaker, but what I found to be most striking was the way he shared his information. He did it exactly like I want to. Through stories and anecdotes, he entertained us while at the same time teaching us. If you’ve read the “Why’d I Do This?” section of the blog, you’ll understand how strong a hold that idea has on me.

Anyway, Mr. Johnson was, in a nutshell, speaking about how good ideas happen. An instrumental part of ideaing, if you will, is the setting. What settings are most conducive to creative thinking?

This is a photo of an office in the Pixar headquarters. It is conducive to innovation and I wish I worked there.

One example he used was from the 17th century during the Enlightenment. And from that story, I’ve decided that all modern, intelligent thought stems from one primary source: the Coffee House.

You might see chaos, but I see...chaos.

“Hold up, Esther. Watchu talkin bout with all this ‘ideas come from coffee houses??'”

In the 17th century, people drank alcohol all day. Literally all day. They had beer with breakfast, beer with lunch, beer with dinner, and beer in between. This was for a good reason. The water was not safe to drink. You may not be aware, but way back when, water processing plants weren’t as advanced. Drinking water looked like this:

Just takin a refreshing swim, no big deal.

So beer was obviously the best choice for hydration. But guess what?

Everyone was drunk. All day. Every day.

Clearly, that is not conducive to coherent thinking, idea creating, or remembering what you did that day.

I dunno about you, but I don't think being drunk helps their aim.

Then something new happened: coffee. It became available and affordable. Coffee houses were being built. Groups of diverese people would gather at the coffee houses, be sober, and talk. Amazingly (and I am paraphrasing from something Mr. Johnson said) people are more productive when they’re taking a stimulant and not a depressant. Ideas would form and take wing, all because of coffee.

Another 17th century coffee house.

Here’s an example.

You may have heard of an insurance company called Lloyd’s of London. They are the oldest insurance company in the world. But this giant business has much humbler roots. It was an idea thought up in a coffee house in London (owned by Edward Lloyd) by members of the shipping industry. They realized that shipping was a lucrative but extremely risky business. So they devised a way to ensure that investors could confidently put money into shipping ventures and still sleep at night. They invented modern day insurance.

Not drunk.

Over coffee.

In a coffee house.

The Subscription Room of Lloyd's of London.

There you have it. Coffee houses single handedly altered the course of ideas and innovation history.

And you thought food was just good for eating.

Keep eating and asking, my friends.


P.S. I stumbled across this. Coffee may have helped change the way innovate, but it apparently doesn’t help the male libido. Women in the late 17th century believed that coffee caused everything from homosexuality to performance issues. Now we know the performance issues came from excessive drinking.

I think they're confused about which beverage to protest.

Photos, in order of appearance:








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