Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge: How the Godfather of Caffeine Kickstarted Coffee

That's damn fine coffee.

Danny Paez

Caffeine is the world’s most widely used psychoactive drug. It’s in coffee, naturally, but also fizzy drinks, and even in bars of soap.

The particularly wide array of methods of beating morning brain is in no small part thanks to the work of a Germany chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, who first isolated the stimulant in 1819, a monumental scientific discovery that also had widespread cultural implications.

On Friday, Runge would have turned 225 years old, and Google commemorated his finding with a Google Doodle.

Runge’s history-changing chemistry experiment started with a gift. His friend, the writer and politician Johann Woflgang Von Goethe, visited him to see a demonstration of how the plant Atropa belladonna can dilate pupils. Runge wowed his guest by using a cat as an experimental subject, and Goethe gave him a bag of coffee beans as a token of appreciation, he recounted in his book Hauswirtschaftlichen Briefen.

“He handed me a carton of coffee beans, which a Greek had sent him as a delicacy,” reads an English translation. “‘You can also use these in your investigations,’ said Goethe. He was right; for soon thereafter I discovered therein caffeine.”

Runge discovered the active ingredient in coffee that holds us down every day.

Unsplash / Ozgu Ozden

Runge first called it “Kaffebase” and his dicovery inspired other scientists to continue researching the active ingredient in coffee throughout the 19th Century.

In 1895, German chemist Hermann Emil Fischer was the first to synthesize caffeine from its chemical components, which was part of the research that won Fischer a Nobel Prize in 1902. But understanding the precise mechanics of caffeine was a discovery that had implications stretching far beyond the scientific world.

The Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge Google Doodle


How Caffeine in Coffee Changed European Culture

Caffeine was first widely consumed in coffee, which was discovered in Ethiopia during the 11th Century. Coffee beans quickly spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula, leading to the creation of massive farms in Yemen. It finally made it to Istanbul in the 1500s, where European travelers brought it back home with them and unwittingly changed the continent’s culture for good.

Before the Western world was introduced to coffee, people would often start their mornings by cracking a cold one. Polluted water supplies not only made beer Europeans’ drink of choice, it was also a source of sustenance, concoctions like beer soup (a concoction of beer, eggs, and fat) were common, and people then usually continued to sip beer throughout the day. But that quickly changed once coffee came into the picture.

Workers quickly realized that the coffee jitters were much better for productivity than being slightly buzzed all day long. In fact, the New York Stock Exchange began in a coffee house where brokers would get together to trade securities and sip java, which was most likely easier as they weren’t drunk. Coffee is also credited with bringing about the age of Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution.

A 1797 painting showing the Tontine Coffee House with the flag on its roof and Wall Street to the right.

NY Historical Society

American science author Steven Johnson wrote, “the age of reason accompanies the rise of caffeinated beverages” in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. It was also widely reported that workers, who were the backbone of the factories and companies that ushered in the age of mass industry, heavily relied on coffee to get through the day.

Thanks to Runge, we know why a cup of joe makes up hop out of bed and how we can take caffeine and put it into a host of different products. Now, that’s damn fine coffee.

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