In 2018, the Institute of Physics will move to Kings Cross and into what is being called the “Knowledge Quarter”, an area incorporating the British Library, the newly opened Francis Crick Institute and the University of the Arts, among others. Coffee houses have, in the past, been integral to the development of knowledge, places where scientists, artists and the generally interested would meet to discuss new ideas or groundbreaking results. So what about the cafés in Kings Cross? Where will tomorrow’s scientists, artists and the generally interested meet?
Knowing that I would be in the Kings Cross area a couple of weeks ago, I looked up the Kings Cross coffee guide by doubleskinnymacchiato and decided, for not-quite-random reasons, to try Pattern on this occasion. I had been forewarned that the first thing that I would notice would be the colourful patterns on the wall. A good call, that was indeed one of the first things you notice as you walk in. Secondly though were the hat-lampshades on the bulbs over the table at the window (visible in the photo on doubleskinnymacchiato’s review). As anyone who has met me in autumn/winter may appreciate, the lampshades immediately made me feel right at home. It was fairly crowded when I arrived in the late-morning and so I shared the bench in the window with a couple of people who seemed to be discussing history/philosophy and how to write properly referenced argumentative essays. The Americano I had ordered was brought over and, slightly self-conscious to photograph it while sharing the table, I just had to enjoy and savour the well made coffee. There is, perhaps, almost too much to notice at Pattern. But something behind me caught my eye, something that connects coffee, patterns and this café: An old style dial telephone, fixed to the counter.
Although the history of the invention of the telephone is quite controversial, the bit that reminds me of coffee is not so contentious, it is to do with how the telephone works. Let me explain.
In the gallery the “Information Age” at the Science Museum in London, it is argued that the commercial success of the telephone was driven by the invention of the carbon microphone, simultaneously invented by David Hughes (1831-1900) and Thomas Edison (1847-1931). It is the Edison version that prompts me to think of espresso. Edison’s microphone worked by packing a cylinder of carbon granules between two metal plates. In my mind I think of Edison’s carbon microphone as similar to a perfectly tamped coffee block in a filter basket. In the microphone, one plate was fixed, the other was flexible and acted as a diaphragm. When somebody spoke into the microphone, the diaphragm would vibrate causing the carbon granules to move alternatively closer together and further apart. Carbon conducts electricity and so the resistance of the microphone changed if the carbon granules were closer together or further apart. The sound waves impacting on the diaphragm were being perfectly translated to electric current patterns that could be transmitted through the telephone lines. The packing of the carbon granules would need to be optimum to transmit the sound, just as the pressure used to press the espresso tablet needs to be just right, enough contact between coffee grains to prevent the water flowing straight through without producing a good coffee, but not so much that the water cannot percolate through the coffee tablet and what should be a lovely espresso becomes over extracted. The ground coffee pressed into the filter basket at Pattern must have fitted this optimum density very well. A well poured espresso revealing that they had achieved that optimum balance between compression and space in the espresso tablet. Good coffee, interesting physics, I’m sure the Institute of Physics will be pleased when it eventually moves to its new home with such great coffee neighbours.
Although slightly off topic, a cafe-review considering telephones would not be complete without including the story about Erasmus Darwin, the Devil and his “speaking machine”. Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was a fairly portly man who worked hard. So it was inconvenient for him to have to go from his study to the kitchen when he wanted something to eat. Being a bit of an inventor, he installed a speaking tube in his home that connected his study to his kitchen. Desmond King-Hele in “Erasmus Darwin, A life of unequalled achievement”* described what happened next:
“One day a local yokel who had arrived with a message for Darwin, was left alone in the kitchen. He was terrified when a sepulchral and authoritative voice from nowhere demanded ‘I want some coals’. Such a request could only come from the Devil, he thought, wishing to stoke up hell’s fires. The man fled and would not come near the house again.”
The poor local may have been bewildered by the number of telephones and ‘voices from nowhere’ that surround us now. If you’re reading this in a café, why not look around you, notice some strange connection (the very lateral ones can be particularly fun to ponder), and then let me know what you have seen. It’s always interesting to hear the science, history and connections that people notice as they sit in cafés around.
Pattern Coffee is at 82 Caledonian Road, N1 9DN
*Desmond King-Hele, “Erasmus Darwin, A life of unequalled achievement” was published by Giles de la Mare Publishers, 1999.