It’s easy to assume that social-media platforms are a relatively recent development. But social media—the exchange of media among networks of friends and acquaintances—goes back much further than the internet. Indeed, it can be traced back to Roman times, when members of the elite regularly exchanged, shared and copied letters, speeches and books with members of their social circles. This is just one of many historical precedents of modern social media, from the torrent of printed tracts which circulated in 16th-century Germany to the exchange of gossip-laden poetry in the Tudor court and the stream of news-sheets and pamphlets that coursed through Enlightenment coffee-houses. For most of human history, social networks were the dominant means by which new ideas and information spread; “mass media” is a very recent phenomenon. It turns out that many of the questions prompted by social media in the 21st century have arisen before, which means that history can provide valuable lessons for us today. At the same time, our contemporary experience of social media enables us to see the past with new eyes.
There are many ways to look at the past: as a list of important dates, a conveyor belt of kings and queens, a series of rising and falling empires, or a narrative of political, philosophical or technological progress. This book looks at history in another way entirely: as a series of transformations caused, enabled or influenced by food. Throughout history, food has done more than simply provide sustenance. It has acted as a catalyst of social transformation, societal organisation, geopolitical competition, industrial development, military conflict and economic expansion. From prehistory to the present, the stories of these transformations form a narrative that encompasses the whole of human history.
As the tides of history have ebbed and flowed, different drinks have come to prominence in different times, places and cultures, from stone-age villages to Ancient Greek dining rooms or Enlightenment coffeehouses. Each one became popular when it met a particular need or aligned with a historical trend: in some cases, it then went on to influence the course of history in unexpected ways. Just as archaeologists divide history into different periods based on the use of different materials — the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, and so on — it is also possible divide world history into periods dominated by different drinks. Six drinks in particular — beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola — chart the flow of world history. Three contain alcohol and three contain caffeine, but what they all have in common is that each drink was the defining drink during a pivotal historical period, from antiquity to the present day.
My first book, The Victorian Internet, was published in 1998 in Britain and North America (and has since been published in translation in Germany and South Korea). It points out the features common to the telegraph networks of the nineteenth century and the internet of today: hype, scepticism, hackers, on-line romances and weddings, chat-rooms, flame wars, information overload, predictions of imminent world peace, and so on. In the process, I get to make fun of the internet, by showing that even such a quintessentially modern technology actually has roots going back a long way (in this case, to a bunch of electrified monks in 1746). By and large, the book has aged well. Its deliberately retro subject-matter has given it a much longer shelf-life than most internet books, and it seems to have become, if anything, even more relevant since the dotcom crash. (It was reissued in September 2007, unchanged except for the addition of a new afterword.)
On an autumn day in 1769, a Hungarian nobleman, Wolfgang von Kempelen, was summoned to witness a conjuring show at the imperial court of Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungary. So unimpressed was Kempelen by what he saw that he impetuously declared that he could do better himself. Very well, said the empress, and gave him six months to deliver on his promise. The following year Kempelen unveiled an extraordinary contraption: a mechanical man seated behind a wooden cabinet. The Turk, as it became known, was fashioned from wood, powered by clockwork, and dressed in a stylish Turkish costume. Most astonishing of all, it was capable of playing chess. But how did it work? A torrent of pamphlets, books and articles followed the Turk wherever it went. Was it controlled by a dwarf, a monkey, or a legless war veteran lurking in its innards? Was it an elaborate form of puppet, or controlled by magnets? Or had Kempelen succeeded in building a thinking machine?
The Neptune File is the tale of the discovery of the planet Neptune in 1846 as a result of mathematical analysis of the anomalous motion of the planet Uranus. The book tells the story of the rival mathematicians who predicted Neptune’s existence, and the ensuing race to identify it in the skies. The discovery caused an international sensation and spawned a controversy that has continued to rumble ever since. Many of the key documents relating to the discovery, which were bound into a scrapbook by the English Astronomer Royal, George Airy, went missing after the second world war and were only recovered last year from a horde of documents found in Chile. This scrapbook, the Neptune File, is the primary source for my book, which is the most detailed account yet published of the Neptune affair.