The Penny Universities

The Hungarian mathematician Alfréd Rényi famously quipped about his colleague Paul Erdös that, “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems”. However this theorem producing process didn’t start with Erdös in the twentieth century but became an established routine as soon the coffee house made its appearance in Restoration England in the second half of the seventeenth century.

The first coffee house in England, The Angel, opened in Oxford in 1650 closely followed by The Queen’s Lane Coffee House in 1654, which is still in existence. London’s first coffee house, owned by Pasqua Rosée opened in 1652. The Temple Bar, London’s second coffee house opened in 1656.

Coffee House

Circa 1740, A London coffee house. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

From the very beginning English coffee houses became the favourite haunts of the virtuosi, the new generation of natural philosophers pushing the evolution of science forward in England in the second half of the seventeenth century; the circle around Christopher Wren in Oxford and the members of the Royal Society in London quickly becoming the habitués. The famous discussion between Wren, Hooke and Halley about an inverse square law of gravity and the shape of the planetary orbits took place in a London coffee house. Later, after he moved to London in 1696, Isaac Newton would hold court in the evenings in a coffee house distributing unpublished mathematical manuscripts to favoured acolytes privileged to sit at the feet of the maestro.

However these intellectual exchanges went beyond the informal meetings of the virtuosi in their free time. The coffee house became know as the penny universities, one penny being the going price of a cup of coffee. The proprietors offered courses of study as well as lecture courses in a wide range of subjects to those willing to pay a penny. As well as foreign languages these courses covered the new sciences. William Whiston, Newton’s successor as Lucasian Professor in Cambridge, offered courses in the new natural philosophy in the coffee houses, following his fall from grace and expulsion from Cambridge because of his religious views. Francis Hauksbee, demonstrator of experiments at the Royal Society under Newton’s presidentship, also improved his income with similar courses. Abraham de Moivre, impoverished Huguenot refugee, mathematician and fervent Newtonian eked out a pittance in the coffee houses, teaching chess and mathematics and instructing punters how to calculate gambling odds.


Hogarth Depicts Tom King’s Coffee House (later Moll King’s Coffee House) in his painting Four Times of the Day.

Later in the eighteenth century the group of religious dissenters, radical liberal politicians and scientists, christened by Benjamin Franklin “The Club of Honest Whigs”, which included as well as Franklin, the chemist Joseph Priestly, the mathematician Richard Price, the natural philosopher John Canton, the military physician John Pringle and the physician Benjamin Vaughan held their regular Monday meetings in the London Coffee House in St Paul’s Churchyard.

Many were the scientific and mathematical debates and disputes that were carried out in the eighteenth century coffee houses of England.

I drink my daily cup of coffee at Amir Der KaffeeMann in Erlangen, excellent beverages personally roasted by Amir, the Persian proprietor, and for the price of a cappuccino I will entertain you with a history of science lecture of your choice.


Filed under History of science, Newton

14 responses to “The Penny Universities

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  2. Bach’s Coffee Cantata just happened to start playing on the radio as I was in the middle of reading this! Synchronicity, or something like that…

  3. “The Angle”? or “The Angel”? Antony Wood reports celestial beings, rather than the measurement of the intersections of planes 😉

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  5. telescoper

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    It’s International Coffee Day, which makes me even more annoyed that I just returned from a shopping trip having forgotten to buy any (despite having “coffee” right at the top of my list..

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  10. “For I have known them all already, known them all:
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;”

    If there had been more female philosophers back then,
    ” In the room the women come and go
    Talking of Michelangelo.”

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