telephones

Ripples in the Knowledge Quarter at Pattern, Kings Cross

Pattern, coffee, Kings Cross, Kings X

Pattern Coffee, Kings Cross

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.

telephone, dial, coffee Kings X

Patterns in the cord, patterns in the telephone. An unusual feature at Pattern, Kings Cross.

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.

IoP poster in Kings Cross

Physics is everywhere! (But coming to Kings Cross)

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.

Ripples from the past at Fleet St Press

flash camera, aeropress, sand timers, coffee at Fleet St Press

Window display at Fleet St Press

As the name suggests, there is a lot of history behind the café at 3 Fleet St (the Fleet Street Press). Not only is it just around the corner from the Devereux (which was once the “Grecian” where Halley met Newton), it is a few doors down from the site of the second ever coffee house established in London (the “Rainbow” was at number 15). There is also plenty of history in the café itself. Fleet St Press operates from a listed building, considered especially noteworthy for its 1912 shop interior (ie. the café). The stained glass at the back of the shop (which was nearly the subject of this cafe-physics review) is apparently original while a sign (for “Tobacco blenders”) in the front window hints at the building’s previous use.

Inside, a row of tall stools offers seating along the wall while a large table at the front of the café offers a space to sit more comfortably to enjoy your coffee. We enjoyed a very nice long black (coffee from Caravan) and a soya hot (white) chocolate. The staff were friendly and it was a lovely space to spend a while. Keep-cups and other coffee making equipment are on sale just next to the counter and the café is just full of things to notice. It’s not just the stained glass. The window to the left of the main door has been stocked with a film camera with flash (presumably a nod to the Fleet St of old), an aeropress, a series of sand-timers and many other items of distraction. We sat at the window which had a good view towards the Royal Courts of Justice and two wonky K2 telephone boxes. Just across the passageway from the phone boxes was a post box and this got me thinking about communication and how we communicate with each other.

soy hot white chocolate

An interesting concept. A white chocolate hot chocolate made with soya milk

In an editorial to a book that rolled off one of Europe’s first printing presses, the Bishop of Aleria, Giovanni de Bussi wrote that printing could be considered an act of generosity “the act of sharing what was hoarded”*†. Since then, the newspapers of the old Fleet St have made way for coffee shops and the papers for the internet. The ‘snail mail’ post box across the road has been almost superseded by email or other forms of internet communication. The telephone box, replaced by mobile phones or Skype. Although we may feel overloaded with information, our ancestors felt the same way. Even in the 1640s it was claimed that they were living in times of a media explosion in which there were just too many books*.

So, rather than look at how the scribe gave way to the printing press, books to newspapers, letters to telegraphs and then telephones and now email, Twitter and instant messaging, perhaps it is worth dwelling a short while on what underlies all of these. Indeed, we are so used to what underlies these communication techniques that we may not even notice it.

Writing.

It may be an obvious point but none of these communication methods would have been possible were it not for writing. Given that Homo sapiens are thought to have come out of Africa some 200 000 years ago, and have been farming since 13000 – 8000 BCE, it is perhaps surprising that the first record that we have of a writing system was not until ~3500 BCE. Writing is thought to have originated in Sumer, Mesopotamia as pictographs. Phonographic writing was not developed until later. Shortly afterwards it was again ‘invented’ in Egypt (3150 BCE) and separately in China (1200 BCE) and MesoAmerica (~500BCE). Writing is a surprisingly recent phenomenon.

K2 phone boxes and a post box

The view from the window at Fleet St Press

As with the fixtures at Fleet St Press, clues from these earlier cultures pervade the space around us rather like the ghost signs of advertising past. The tobacco sign above the door is suggestive of former occupiers Weingott and Sons. Famous for their pipes, they ran a shop on the site from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1930s. Meanwhile, the writing systems of the ancients lives on both in our alphabet and in our time keeping. Even the name ‘alphabet’ resonates with the history of the Greek “alpha, beta” and the Hebrew “Aleph, Beth” (themselves originating from the Phoenician). The Babylonian number system meanwhile, which dates from around 1800 BCE and used base 60 to count (i.e. rather than 1-9, their number system counted 1-59) echoes down the ages. It is thought that remnants of this system remain both in how we count the degrees of a circle (360) and how we tell the time (60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute).

Signs and systems that are both instantly familiar and a ghostly ripple from the people of the past.

Fleet St Press can be found at 3 Fleet St, EC4Y 1AU.

*E.L. Eisenstein, “Divine Art, Infernal Machine, the reception of printing in the West from first impressions to the sense of an ending”, University of Pennsylvania Press, (2012)

†Quote from de Bussi is as quoted in Divine Art, Infernal Machine on p 15. 

Some interesting anecdotes about the history of communication can be found in Robert Winston “Bad Ideas, An arresting history of our inventions” Bantam books, (2010),

Also recommended “A history of mathematics, from Mesopotamia to modernity”, L Hodgkin, Oxford University Press, (2005)