Coffee House Culture and The Free Market of Thought: Cultural Interchange in the 1700’s

HSTR 207 – Science and Technology in World History

Mary Hill Young




What a government has to fear from an air pump or electrical device, is not the thing itself, but the potential that it represents. Priestly is speaking about the danger posed to enshrined government by innovation and the free exchange of thought. He and his experiments are a prime example, when one considers that, despite being a citizen of Great Britain, his inventions were deeply influential in the improvement of French gunpowder which later ended up in the hands of the American revolutionists, “Priestly himself may have shared some of his speculations with Lavoisier during their famous dinner in Paris in late 1774…The cutting edge ideas about combustion that Priestly an Magellan had put in his head …made him a brilliant choice to revitalize France’s gunpowder production.”(Johnson, The Invention of Air, 127) This clearly explicates the danger cross cultural interaction posed to an entrenched government, with its fluid exchange of ideas the established order of things might be brought down with swift efficacy.

This same fear lives in the entrenched establishments of today, and is still equally capable of challenging the way we think and operate. Priestly in particular claimed that, “A diversity of groups, and the diversity of proposed experiments, ensures that a broad mix of interesting problems will be explored.”(Johnson, The Invention of Air, 144) This diversity that Priestly lauded is what challenges the old order so dangerously and has equal application to the scientific and technological advances of our present day. Innovation inevitable changes the social order, no matter what form that innovation takes, and entrenched establishments are susceptible to collapse in the face of great change or advancement, particularly when brought about by diversity among ideas and people. The established order is just that because it is capable of controlling a society it can predict, but as soon as innovation and revolution begin the established order must crumble.