A meeting of minds

Steven Johnson explores the conditions that exist when periods of great discovery occur, arguing that freedom of ideas was vital in the 18th century – as it is today.

Even short Hints, and imperfect Experiments in any new Branch of Science, being communicated, have oftentimes a good Effect, in exciting the attention of the Ingenious to the Subject, and so becoming the Occasion of more exact disquisitions... and more compleat Discoveries." - Benjamin Franklin

If you visit London today, and walk along the north edge of St Paul’s Cathedral, you can stand at the former location of the London Coffeehouse. There is no memorial there, but there should be. London is strewn with plaques that dutifully point out where legendary figures from history lived. But the coffeehouses deserve our historical memory too: in many cases, they mark the places where revolutionary ideas emerged and began to take flight. The Enlightenment-era coffeehouse was the internet of its day: a locus of conversation, news, shop-talk, and public debate. Whole industries were invented in these new social environments, fuelled by the buzz of caffeine and the intellectual energy of different professions gathering together to share ideas.

With the university system languishing in archaic traditions, and corporate R&D labs still on the distant horizon, the public space of the coffeehouse served as the central hub of innovation in British society. Most of the epic developments in England between 1650 and 1800 that still warrant a mention in the history books have a coffeehouse lurking at some crucial juncture in the story: the restoration of Charles II, Newton’s theory of gravity, the South Sea bubble. Lloyd’s of London was once just Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, until the shipowners and merchants started clustering there and collectively invented the modern insurance company. The RSA itself was born in London’s coffeehouse culture during the 1750s.

The most famous denizen of the London Coffeehouse on St Paul’s Churchyard was, ironically, an American: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had a regular clan in the coffeehouse, a band of fellow iconoclasts that he would later dub ‘The Club of Honest Whigs’. But of all those over-caffeinated sessions in the shadow of St Paul’s, one stands out as particularly significant. In late December of 1765, he met a young minister and author named Joseph Priestley. It was the beginning of a friendship that would change the face of science.

Franklin was already recognized as one of the great scientists of the century. At 32, Priestley was at the beginning of his career, but he was soon to embark on a series of experiments that would ultimately give him claim to the title of the man who ‘discovered oxygen’. Priestley had engineered an audience with Franklin and his fellow Honest Whigs because he had concocted an idea for a book on the history of electricity.

As a small-town minister and teacher with an amateur’s passion for the new discoveries of ‘natural philosophy’, Priestley had developed an interest in electricity over the preceding years, a typical hobby during that period for homespun scientists.  No other field had generated so much scientific and practical innovation in such a short amount of time. But Priestley had detected a missing piece in the growing science of electricity: no one had written a popular account of these world-changing discoveries. And so he had set off to London, hoping to meet the Electricians – as the scientists were popularly known – and to persuade them to let him tell the story of their genius.

Franklin was immediately supportive of the idea, and promised the young Priestley open access to his library and correspondence. But Franklin and his friends took one additional step that proved crucial: they encouraged Priestley to conduct his own experiments while writing his history. Hearing his idols urging him to write about his own investigations opened up a whole new field of possibility for the young man. Priestley had arrived in London as a dabbler in natural philosophy, tinkering in the provinces with his electrical machine and his air-pump. By the time he left, he was a scientist.

Over the next eight years, Priestley would go on an intellectual streak of legendary proportions, making two groundbreaking discoveries, each one the sort of achievement that on its own would warrant inclusion in the pantheon of Enlightenment science. He would publish multiple papers on his electrical research, inventing new apparatus for the creation of electrical charge, recording the first known sighting of what we now call an ‘oscillatory discharge’, which would eventually be crucial to the technology of radio and television. He would isolate and name ten distinct gases, now understood as some of the building blocks of Earth’s atmosphere, sparking a revolution in chemistry. Along the way, he would write more than fifty books and pamphlets on politics, education, and faith. And if that list doesn’t seem impressive enough: he would also invent soda water.

The decade of breakthrough ideas that followed that fateful meeting in the London Coffeehouse serves as an instructive case study in the nature of innovation. Intellectual historians have long wrestled with the strangeness of this kind of streak. The thinker plods along, publishing erratically, making incremental progress, and then suddenly, the floodgates open and a thousand interesting ideas seem to pour out. It’s no mystery that there are geniuses in the world, who come into life with innate cognitive skills that are nurtured and provoked by cultural environments over time. It’s not hard to understand that these people are smarter than the rest of us and thus tend to come up with a disproportionate share of the Big Ideas. The mystery is why, every now and again, one of these people seems to get a hot hand.

Priestley’s streak illustrates two key principles that are common to most cases of personal or cultural innovation. The first is the importance of open networks, where flows of information are allowed to combine in novel formations. The second is the importance of different scales of experience, what I have called the ‘long zoom’, the movement from cellular to individual to global perspectives. Cultural achievements emerge out of the complex interactions between different scales, from the neural networks of the human brain, to the biographical details of human lives, to the broad ebb and flow of social and physical energy in a changing society. The long zoom of culture looks something like this, moving from the very small to the very large: neurochemistry; individual biography; social networks; information networks; technological platforms; scientific paradigms; political regimes; economic modes; settlement patterns; energy flows.

As in modern ecosystem science, which also revolves around a long zoom perspective, each level operates at different time scales: biographical details of sibling rivalry or traumatic illnesses unfold on the scale of years or decades, while transformations in the flow of energy can take thousands (or millions) of years to play out. The economic base and the scientific paradigm figure prominently in this scheme, but neither have the primacy that Marx and Thomas Kuhn accorded to them. When something big happens in the culture – when a man in Leeds goes on a streak of pioneering natural philosophy; when several nations clustered together in a small subsection of the planet simultaneously reinvent science and government – that event is rarely the exclusive result of a single layer: one man’s genius, say, or the rise of a new economic class. Epic breakthroughs happen when the layers align: when energy flows and settlement patterns and scientific paradigms and individual human lives come into some kind of mutually-reinforcing synchrony that helps the new ideas both emerge and circulate through the wider society.

Consider the story of Priestley and soda water. In the summer of 1767, Joseph and Mary packed up their belongings at Warrington – the electrical kits and phials and growing library – so that Joseph could take up residence as minister to a congregation at Mill-Hill chapel in Leeds. While the parish was larger, his daily obligations were far less imposing than they had been teaching at Warrington, requiring no more than an hour or two a day. With his wife Mary running the household and tending to their four-year-old daughter Sally, Priestley simply had more time on his hands to explore, invent, and write. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but most of the great inventors were blessed with something else: leisure time.

The move also inspired Priestley in less predictable ways. When the Priestleys first arrived in Leeds, they discovered the official minister’s house on Bansinghall Street was still being renovated for them, and so they took up residence for a short while on Meadow Lane, in a house that bordered the public brewery of Jakes and Nell. Ever curious, Priestley quickly discovered that the vats of fermenting liquid emitted a steady supply of ‘fixed’ or ‘mephitic’ air – what we now call carbon dioxide. Within a matter of weeks, the puzzled workmen in the brewery were assisting the eccentric minister next door with a battery of experiments over the vats. Priestley discovered that pouring plain water back and forth between two cups while holding it over the vats suffused it with the fixed air, adding an agreeable fizz that was reminiscent of certain rare mineral waters. In late September, he wrote a note to Canton describing his new fascination with mephitic air that included the aside, ‘By the way, I make most delightful Pyrmont Water’.

Priestley’s soda water epiphany created a taste for carbonation that would ultimately conquer the planet. He later described it as his ‘happiest’ discovery, while acknowledging it had little scientific value. But that chance encounter with the Jakes and Nell brewery ultimately led to more substantive investigations as well: those fermenting vats with their invisible pool of mephitic air triggered in Priestley a new fascination with the mysteries of air itself, a fascination that would ultimately lead to the greatest discoveries of his career – along with his most vexing blunder. Had the renovations to the minister’s house on Bansinghall Street followed an accelerated timetable, it’s likely that Priestley would have never stumbled across his ‘delightful Pyrmont water’; without the Brewery, it’s possible that Priestley wouldn’t have thrown himself into the study of gases that dominated the next decade of his research. We tend to talk about the history of ideas in terms of individual genius and broader cultural categories – the spirit of the age, the paradigm of research. But ideas happen in specific physical environments as well, environments that bring their own distinct pressures, opportunities, limitations and happy accidents to the evolution of human understanding. Take Joseph Priestley out of Enlightenment culture, deprive him of the scientific method and his legendary streak no doubt disappears, or turns into something radically different. But take Priestley out of Meadow Lane and deprive him of his hours at the brewery and you likely get a different story as well.

Meeting of mindsIdeas are situated in another kind of environment as well: the information network. Theoretically, it is possible to imagine good ideas happening in a vacuum – some kind of Inuit scientist conjuring up breathtaking discoveries alone in his igloo and then keeping them to himself. But most important ideas enter the pantheon because they circulate. And the flow is two-way: the ideas happen in the first place because they are triggered by other people’s ideas. The whole notion of intellectual circulation or flow is embedded in the word ‘influence’ itself (‘to flow into’ in the original Latin.) Good ideas influence, and are themselves influenced by other ideas. They flow into each other. Different societies at different moments in history have varying patterns of circulation: compare the cloistered, stagnant information pools of the European Dark Ages to the hyperlinked, open-sourced connectivity of the internet.

You can see in Priestley’s letters to the Honest Whigs where he and his friends fell on the circulation spectrum: every detail of every experiment relayed in the most generous, exhaustive form imaginable. The idea of proprietary secrets, of withholding information for personal gain, was unimaginable in that group. Think of the untold trillions of dollars that have been generated by the invention of soda water, and yet Priestley happily revealed his formula in letters, pamphlets and dinner party chatter – to anyone who would listen. He was a compulsive sharer; the whole genesis of his History Of Electricity had been to inspire new research by conveying the current state of play in intelligible and comprehensive detail. No doubt Priestley saw farther because he stood on the shoulders of giants, but he had another crucial asset: he had a reliable postal service that let him share his ideas with giants.

Thinking about Priestley’s streak in the context of information networks takes us all the way back to that fateful meeting at the London Coffeehouse. The open circulation of ideas was practically the founding credo of the Club of Honest Whigs, and of 18th-century coffeehouse culture in general. You can’t underestimate the impact that the Club of Honest Whigs had on Priestley’s subsequent streak, precisely because he was able to plug into an existing network of relationships and collaborations that the coffeehouse environment facilitated. Not just because there were learned men of science sitting around the table but also because the coffeehouse culture was cross-disciplinary by nature, the conversations freely roaming from electricity, to the abuses of parliament and the fate of dissenting churches. 

There is a contemporary moral to this story, of course. Open networks of amateurs collaborating through novel communication channels, creating and sharing valuable new ideas, incentivised by the non-monetary rewards of social esteem and intellectual satisfaction: these are the values that are once again ascendant in the age of open source, Wikipedia, and the internet itself. The advocates for these digital-age movements are right to argue that they constitute a radical challenge to the proprietary, patent-driven model of innovation that has dominated the way we think about the genesis of good ideas for too long. But they are wrong when they assume these new networked structures are historical novelties: most of Enlightenment science, for instance, emerged through dense networks of self-taught amateurs.

The industrial era model where ideas are cultivated by protecting them, keeping them under the lock-and-key of trade secrets and IP lawyers, is in fact the historical anomaly. In the long zoom of both history and biology, good ideas have more often than not flourished when they are allowed to spread, when they are allowed to attract, in Franklin’s wonderful phrase, ‘the attentions of the Ingenious.’ For two hundred years, we have lived under the orthodoxy that cultures that protect ideas best will prove to be the most innovative. We are now starting to remember the virtue of connecting those ideas instead.

Steven Johnson is a best-selling author and a former columnist for Wired magazine