Coffee, Facebook and Revolution

By Prof. Shlomo Maital

There is a surprisingly tight historical link between coffee, Facebook and revolution. And it is not because people drink coffee while fomenting revolutions on their laptops.

Coffee is over a thousand years old. It was allegedly discovered by an Ethiopian goatherd, who noticed his goats were especially lively after eating leaves and beans from a low shrub. He too tried it, the story goes – and the rest is history.


On January 18, Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26-year-old Egyptian woman, made a video urging citizens to demand their “human rights.” The time and place of such demonstrations were coordinated on Facebook. Earlier the same was done in Tunisia, a brutal dictatorship defeated by the boundary-free nature of Internet. Facebook played equally important roles elsewhere, in Bahrain for instance, and continues to play this role in Syria and elsewhere.

But it is not widely known that the role of coordination and communication that Facebook filled in today’s Mideast evolutions was played 222 years ago, by …coffee. Though discovered in Ethiopia, coffee was actually brought to Europe from South America. Brazilian coffee, now a fourth of the world’s supply, originated with a few fertile stolen beans from Colombia. Coffee became hugely popular in the 18th Century in Europe as coffee houses spread. Europe sobered up – instead of drinking wine and beer in pubs, Europeans (including the British) began drinking coffee.

The French Revolution, culminating in the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, was planned and coordinated in meetings held in French coffee houses. At the time, coffee tasted awful! The beans were poorly roasted and boiled into a black sludge. But – caffeine is caffeine…. And the French Revolution was driven by caffeine and the conversations held as it was being drunk. Coffee houses and cafés were the Facebook of the French Revolution.

The same is true of the American Revolution, in 1776. The French middle class were inspired by the rebellious Americans, who had made tea the Tahrir Square issue. When the British tried to tax tea bought by Americans, they dumped it into Boston Harbor. The Tea Party was led by a brewer named Samuel Adams – you can still drink his beer. It then became patriotic to drink coffee. In fact, Americans identified their political leanings (British loyalist versus American rebel) by the beverage they drank in coffee houses.

The final part to this Facebook coffee story, the missing link, is a man named James Folger, who left Boston and went to California in the 1849 gold rush. But he found gold not in ‘them thar hills’ but in coffee. He roasted coffee beans, then ground and packaged them, and brought them up to the miners and sold them for gold dust. Folger made more money than they did. And Folger’s remains a major coffee brand to this day.

The link? Facebook’s headquarters, like many such startups, are on Pagemill Road, in Palo Alto, California, where 26-year-old Mark Zuckerberg has struck gold, after drinking endless cups of coffee late into the night while writing code.

This article was originally published in Prof. Shlomo Maital’s Innovation Blog: