temperature

Hear no evil… at the Inverness Coffee Roasters, Inverness

Coffee in Inverness

Inverness Coffee Roasting Company.

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil, so the saying goes and so the monkey, that was sitting on the sofa at the Inverness Coffee Roasting company (and café) indicated. And while I would not like anything evil to be said on this website generally, today it will be taken to an extreme as this cafe-physics review will not say much at all. Not because the coffee was not good, my Americano was a lovely complex dark and very enjoyable brew. Nor because there weren’t things to write about, several avenues suggested themselves for a ‘cafe-physics’ type review. There were also plenty of things to enjoy nibbling on while sitting down in this warm and comfy environment taking in the surroundings. Chocolate from The Chocolate Place was clearly labelled (and so I could enjoy it confident that it was nut-free) with a good variety of interestingly flavoured chocolates. The chocolate/coffee combination always goes well and the salted dark chocolate indeed complemented the coffee. A variety of freshly roasted coffees were in jars ready for selling to the home-brewing crowd and I heard both people behind the counter discussing coffee tastes with different customers to ensure that they could properly recommend a coffee for each of them.

So why, if the coffee was good, the service friendly and the environment interesting am I not going to write much about Inverness Coffee Roasting Company? Well, largely because I had been on holiday and so the preoccupations of the days before would necessarily influence what I noticed about this little café. Although I could happily write about neolithic monuments and considerations about inter-generational solidarity in relation to the re-use of refuse heaps at Skara Brae (as building material) and our own use (or misuse) of refuse in our environmental behaviour today. And it could even fit into a cafe-physics review of this venue as a sign on the wall above the door invited everyone to join the Plastic Free Scotland movement. However, it is not really what a Bean Thinking cafe-physics review is about. The idea behind the cafe-physics reviews is that things are often connected in surprising and beautiful ways and we can generally only see the connections if we slow down and look for them.

hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil

Monkey on a sofa, but there was much more to notice at the Inverness Coffee Roasting Company if you looked around you.

Therefore, while you may (or may not) prefer to read about my holiday considerations of all things thousands of years old, what I thought I’d do with this café review is suggest a few things that I noticed in the café, things that offered a variety of potential thought-trains and then see what you think, what you notice, what you see (or don’t see). Perhaps you will observe something in one of the photos that clicks into a thought train for you, perhaps you can look around you, wherever you are right now – and think about the connections you could make to things you sense there instead? But whichever you do, it is a great time to sit back with a coffee (or perhaps a tea), breathe in and take in your surroundings.

Back in Inverness, the first thing of course was the monkey. Eyes shielded with an arm, suggestive of those who would prefer not to see what is in front of them. Nancy MacLean in “Democracy in Chains” notes that a training in the humanities perhaps opens students to question their society more than other, more utilitarian, subjects may do. Is it hurt pride that makes me rebel against this idea? Can’t physicists question too?

Perhaps it is connected but a sign by the door, and an identical one by the sofa, was written on the glass front of a box of coffee beans: “in emergency break glass”. This suggested so many avenues for exploration to me, I wonder which occur to others?

Behind our seats, a lizard was painted on/engraved into a stone, suggestive of fossils, geology and how we collect evidence. But a second lizard suggested a different direction. An ornamental lizard was positioned as if climbing up the counter. How do lizards climb? What is it about their feat? What connects lizards to a coffee company? Above our heads and above the door, stereotypical of Scotland perhaps, loomed a deer head complete with antlers. But this one was different: it was made of coffee beans and string. How a bean based diet could replace a meat one? The nature of units and how it would not necessarily be sensible to measure the mass of a deer in units of coffee beans? The mind jumped. Jumping beans?

Deer head in beans

Bean there done that?
Gruesome ornament or vegan friendly?

Finally, the logo of the cafe which was featured on signs around the interior and exterior of the space: a flaming coffee bean. The Maillard process and the changes in coffee as it is roasted? The nature of heat/temperature and the manner in which we measure it? What we hear as fire burns, lightning bangs or on “the first crack” of roasting and what this tells us about our atmosphere, our planet and our coffee is made of?

Whatever you notice, please get in touch, either by Facebook, Twitter, leave a comment or send me an email. But one last thing on coffee thought trains that links to real trains and is perhaps reflective back onto what it means to pause and watch. We left Inverness the day after our visit to Inverness Coffee Roasting by train. Inverness station has a relatively steep (1:60) gradient for 20 miles on leaving the station. It is Scotland in autumn, it had been raining and leaves had been falling on the line. Five or ten minutes out of the station, our train to Kings Cross juddered and came to a halt. A signal failure apparently. As the driver re-started the train, it slipped backwards, and again. We weren’t able to get up the hill. And so we had to return into Inverness station. Once back at Inverness station, the guard came across the tannoy and suggested that the signallers had given us the go-ahead to ‘have another run’ at the hill to see if we could get up it this time. So we tried again, juddering and shaking to a stop a few hundred metres beyond where we had stopped before. Back to Inverness station it was. The ever hopeful guard came across the tannoy again: “Third time lucky, fingers crossed”. This time the train left the station faster, building up speed, moving along more quickly and powering out of the station. The carriage was silent, were we going to make it? Past the first point we stopped at, past the second, a bit further, the family behind clapped, the train continued then slowed down and shook, juddered and then sped up again. We were over the hill and on our way back to London.

A last consideration on the conservation of energy and its relation to coffee and thought trains? Or a metaphor for how we may not find those connections in that cafe come to us quickly but if we persist and keep noticing, we can go on a fascinating journey?

Do let me know your thoughts.

The Inverness Coffee Roasting Company can be found at 15 Chapel Street Inverness, IV1 1NA

Is sixty the old forty?

Lundenwic coffee

What is the ideal temperature at which to serve coffee?

What is the optimum temperature at which to enjoy a cup of coffee?

A brief check online for the “ideal” serving temperature for coffee suggested a temperature of around 49-60ºC (120-140ºF, 313-333K) for flavour or 70-80ºC (158-176ºF, 343.1-353.1K) for a hot drink. In my own experiments (purely to write this article you understand), I found that I most enjoyed a lovely coffee from The Roasting House (prepared by V60) at around 52ºC. My old chemistry teacher must have been one who enjoyed the flavour of his coffee too. His advice for A-level practicals was that if we wanted to know what 60ºC ‘felt’ like, we should consider that it feels the same on the back of our hand as the underside of our cup of coffee. So, for argument’s sake, let’s say that we serve our coffee at the upper end of the flavour appreciation scale: 60ºC.

But, have you ever stopped to consider what 60ºC means or even, how we arrived at this particular temperature scale? Why do we measure temperature in the way that we do? While there are interesting stories behind the Fahrenheit scale, today’s post concerns the Celsius, or Centigrade, scale. Indeed, we use “degree Celsius” and “degree Centigrade” almost interchangeably to mean that temperature scale that has 0ºC as the melting point, and 100ºC as the boiling point, of water. It is one of those things that has become so habitual that setting 0ºC at the freezing end and 100ºC at the boiling end seems obvious, intuitive, natural.

thermometer in a nun mug

Careful how you drink your coffee if you repeat this experiment!

And yet the temperature scale that Anders Celsius (1701-1744) invented back in 1741 did not, initially, work this way at all¹. Celsius’s scale did indeed count from 0ºC to 100ºC and was defined using the same fixed points we use now. But rather than counting up from the melting point, Celsius’s scale counted up from 0ºC at the boiling point to 100ºC at the freezing point. Rather than degrees of warmth, Celsius’s scale counted degrees of cold. So, in the original Celsius scale, the serving temperature of coffee should be 40ºC: Sixty is indeed the old forty*.

Which immediately begs a question. Why is it that we count temperature up (the numbers get higher as it gets hotter)? A first answer could be that we view that temperature is a form of measurement of ‘heat’ and that heat is an energy. Consequently, something cold has less energy than something hot, “cold” is the absence of “heat” and therefore what we should measure is “heat”. This means that our thermometers need to indicate higher numbers as the temperature gets hotter, and so we are now counting the correct way. While this is good as far as it goes and certainly is our current understanding of ‘heat’, ‘cold’ and temperature, how is it that we have come to think of heat as energy and cold as the absence of heat? It was certainly not clear to scientists in the Renaissance period. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) considered that cold was a form of “contractive motion” while Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) thought that although ‘caloric’ atoms were needed to explain heat, ‘frigoric’ atoms were also needed to explain cold.

effect of motivation on experience of pleasure while drinking coffee

How heat, rather than visible light, is reflected provides clues as to why we measure temperature ‘up’.

One experiment that helped to show that heat was an energy (and so lent support to the idea of measuring temperature ‘up’) was that of the reflection of heat by mirrors. In the experiment, two concave mirrors are placed facing each other, some distance apart. Each mirror has a focal length of, say, 15 cm. A hot object is placed at the focal length of the first mirror. At the focal point of the second mirror, is placed a thermometer. As soon as both objects are in place, the temperature indicated by the thermometer increases. If the mirror were covered or the thermometer moved away from the focal point, the temperature indicated decreases again to that of the room. It is an experiment which can easily be demonstrated in a lecture hall and which fitted with a view point that cold is the absence of heat.

However, around the same time as this initial demonstration, Marc-Auguste Pictet did another experiment, the (apparent) reflection of cold². The experiment was as before but in Pictet’s second experiment, a flask containing ice replaced the hot object. On repeating the experiment the temperature indicated by the thermometer decreased. Covering the mirror or moving the thermometer from the focal point of the mirror resulted in the indicated temperature increasing again. Just as ‘heat’ was reflected in the mirrors, so too (seemingly) was ‘cold’.

So, the question is, how do you know what you believe you know about heat? Are there experiments that you can design that could help to disprove a theory of ‘frigoric’? And how do you explain the experiments of Pictet? Reader, it’s over to you.

 

*Within ten years of Celsius’s death (of tuberculosis in 1744), his colleagues Martin Strömer and Daniel Ekström had inverted Celsius’s original temperature scale to the form we know today. A similar scale designed by Jean Pierre Christin was also in use by 1743³.

¹”Evolution of the Thermometer 1592-1743″, Henry Carrington Bolton, The Chemical Publishing Company, 1900

²”Inventing Temperature”, Hasok Chang, Oxford University Press, 2008

³”The science of measurement, a historical survey”, Herbert Arthur Klein, Dover Publications Inc. 1988

 

Echoes of Bach at Amoret, Hammersmith

Amoret coffee Hammersmith

Amoret, so new it still didn’t have its name on the outside.

Amoret is a new addition to the coffee scene over in Hammersmith. Just up the road from the Hammersmith & City line entrance of Hammersmith tube station, I nearly missed this cute cafe when I walked past as it had no name on its frontage, nor did it have the chalk board that is characteristic of many cafes. Fortunately however, I had the address and so double backed to find a great little cafe. It appears that that majority of Amoret’s business comes from take-away orders although there is a small seating area at the back (it is small, when we visited in February, there were two chairs and a couple of tables/stools).  If you are fortunate enough though to be able to take a seat at the back of the cafe, I would thoroughly recommend doing so. Not only can you enjoy good coffee in a nice environment, the friendly people behind the bar were very happy to chat about their coffee and cafe. Moreover, there is plenty to notice from this observation post at the back of the cafe.

When we visited, the espresso based coffee was by Campbell and Syme, with V60s that featured different guest roasters (though it seems that other roasters also regularly feature for the espressos). I had a coffee from Panama, roasted by Union, which featured the word “caramel” in its tasting notes. I have simple tastes (‘caramel’ or ‘chocolate’ descriptions always go down well) but it was a great coffee. Complementary water was available at the counter with take-away cups (and water ‘glasses’ ) that were compostable and biodegradable*. As the very friendly staff brought my coffee to the table, I noticed that the ‘table’ that I had put my water on was in fact a metal drum that sounded ‘clang’ as the cup was put down. The sound of the drum immediately suggested that the drum was hollow. We all recognise the sound of a hollow drum, it is partly about the pitch of the sound, but partly about the echoes that we hear as the sound reverberates inside the metal.

Kettle drum at Amoret

After I had enjoyed my filter! The table-drum at Amoret. Does the drum sound the same in summer?

Although it appears simple, the sound made by the drum is influenced by many aspects of the drum’s construction and surroundings. The stiffness of the metal and the atmospheric pressure affect the way that the drum’s surface vibrates, while the size of the drum and the speed of sound in air also affect the note, or pitch, that we hear. How is the sound of the drum affected by a change in its surroundings? For example, if the atmosphere in Amoret got much warmer, the speed of sound would increase, how would that affect the sound of the table-drum?

A few years ago, Professor Timothy Leighton was wondering how the properties of the atmosphere affected the sounds of musical instruments. Specifically, he wondered what instruments would sound like on other planets. Take Venus. Venus is a planet with a very dense, very hot atmosphere. The surface temperature on Venus is 457C (Earth’s average is approx 14C) while the atmospheric pressure is 90 Bar (Earth’s average: 1 Bar). As it gets hotter, the speed of sound increases and so, to a first approximation, the note made by the drum-table at Amoret will sound higher as the air gets warmer. However, the metal of the drum is also hotter on Venus (so less stiff) and the density and pressure of Venus’ atmosphere will act to further complicate things. So to start thinking about how things sound on Venus, we would be more sensible to think about a simpler instrument, such as an organ, which is only affected by the change of the speed of sound†. Take the famous case of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Played on Venus, the researchers found that, rather than be in D minor (293.66 Hz), it would have the pitch of F minor (at 349.23 Hz). You can hear Bach’s Toccata on Venus (Mars and Titan) here.

Venus

The clouds of Venus photographed by Hubble. Image credit © NASA/JPL

What about a human voice, how would a person sound on Venus (were they able to survive)? In humans, the pitch of the voice is determined by the rate of vibration of the vocal cords. So it is possible to construct a speech synthesiser to imitate human speech by modelling such a voice ‘box’. Erasmus Darwin, (grandfather to Charles) made such a device in around 1770 with wood, leather and silk‡. Darwin’s voice synthesiser could pronouce the sounds ‘p’, ‘m’, ‘b’ and ‘a’ and so ‘mama’, ‘papa’, ‘map’ and ‘pam’, which by some accounts was convincing enough to fool people into thinking there was a small child in the room. Why did people think that Erasmus’ ‘child’ was small? It turns out that just as with the drum, when we listen to people speak, we do not just register their pitch but also the echoes on their voice. Each time we make a sound, the sound travels from the vocal cords down to the lungs (where it gets reflected upwards) and up to the mouth (where it gets reflected downwards). We subconsciously listen for these echoes and, if they take a long time to appear, we deduce that the person is large (there is a greater distance between their voice box and their lungs). If the echo comes back quickly, clearly the distance between the voice box and the lungs is smaller and hence the person is smaller. Just like the drum at Amoret, the human voice is a bit more tricky to model on Venus than Erasmus Darwin’s device allowed for.

Leighton and co-author Andi Petulescu considered the question of the sound of the human voice on Venus in their 2009 paper. Firstly they said, the density of Venus’ atmosphere would make the vocal cords vibrate more slowly, so the person speaking would sound as if they had a deeper voice. But secondly, the high speed of sound on Venus would mean that those echoes that we listen for would come back very quickly, so we would perceive the speaker as being small. What does this sound like? A few years ago, a Dutch TV show set this very topic as a question for their annual quiz and answered it by one of the co-hosts singing Banarama’s “Venus” with, and without, the Venus voice changing software of Leighton. If you understand Dutch, the full clip is below. If you don’t understand Dutch but would just like to find out how you would sound on Venus while singing Banarama, forward to 7 minutes in for the version on Earth and 7m46 in for the Venus version.

It is not easy for us to travel to Venus to investigate whether Prof. Leighton was correct. It is possible for us to repeatedly visit Amoret to investigate how the coffee cups sound as they are put on the drum as the temperature changes around us. This seems a fantastic excuse to revisit to me.

 

Amoret is at 11 Beadon Road, W6 0EA

‡”Erasmus Darwin – A life of unequalled achievement” by Desmon King-Hele was published by Giles de la Mare Publishers (1999)

* It should be noted that ‘compostable’ plastic has a very specific definition that does not mean that it can necessarily be composted in the way that you or I would understand the term, as I described in more detail here. Nonetheless, it is definitely a significant improvement from conventional plastic and I would love to see more cafes follow suit with environmentally sound packaging.

† Of course this comes with a fair few caveats, not least the fact that the organ has to have flue pipes only. I would thoroughly recommend browsing Professor Timothy Leighton’s excellent webpage on this and other aspects of acoustics which you can find here.

Coffee as an art at Briki, Exmouth Market

exterior of Briki coffee London

Briki London on the corner of Exmouth Market

Traditionally made coffee always appeals to my sense of coffee history. Coffee made its way out of Ethiopea via Turkey and the method of brewing the finely ground coffee in a ‘cezve’ or ‘briki’ is one that goes back a long way. It’s therefore always interesting when a new cafe arrives on the scene that offers “Greek” or “Turkish” coffee on its menu. Briki, in Exmouth Market, opened in May last year and so it was only going to be a matter of time before I visited to try it out. Aesthetically Briki appealed to me as soon as I walked through the door. Spacious and with the bar along one wall, there are plenty of seats available at which to slowly enjoy your coffee. The cafe itself is almost triangular and the other two walls have windows running all along them. What better way to sit and enjoy the moment (and your coffee) than to gaze out a window? Still, given that I had gone to a cafe called ‘Briki’ and that it advertised “Briki coffee” on the menu behind the bar, it was obvious that I had to try the briki coffee. The coffee was rich, flavoursome and distinctive, well worth the time taken to savour it. There was also an impressive selection of food behind the counter and the dreaded “does it contain nuts” question was met with a friendly check of the ‘allergen’ folder. I was therefore able to also enjoy the lovely (nut free) chocolate cake. Briki definitely gets a tick in the “cafes with good nut knowledge” box on my categories list.

image from British Museum website

Folio 109b from an album of paintings showing Turkish sultans and court officials. Kahveci. A youth who serves coffee. He is holding a cup in each hand, circa 1620.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

However as I realised later, the coffee was not brewed in the traditional way but in a Beko coffee maker – a coffee maker specifically designed for optimising the brewing of Turkish coffee. The idea of the Beko is that it carefully controls and automates the entire brewing process so that you get a perfect coffee each time. But just how do you make a ‘perfect’ Turkish coffee?

A quick duckduckgo (it’s a mystery to me why has this verb failed to catch on while ‘to google’ is used so frequently) revealed two sets of instructions on how to make Turkish coffee. The first set, (including some otherwise very good coffee brewing websites) suggested ‘boiling’ the coffee repeatedly in the pot (cezve/briki). The second set, which seemed to be more specifically interested in Turkish coffee (as opposed to interested in coffee generally), were much more careful, even to the point of writing, in a very unsubtle way, “NEVER LET IT BOIL“. According to this second set of websites, the coffee in the cezve should be heated until it starts to froth, a process that begins at around 70C, far below the 100C that would be needed to boil it. Warming the cezve to 70C produces these bubbles and the lovely rich taste of the traditionally made coffee. Heating it to boiling point on the other hand destroys the aromatics* that form part of the flavour experience of coffee and therefore makes a terrible cup of coffee.

The contrasting instructions however led me to recall a discussion in Hasok Chang’s Inventing Temperature. Perhaps we all remember from school being taught how thermometers need two fixed points to calibrate the temperature scale and that these two fixed points were the boiling point and the freezing point of water. Perhaps this troubled you at the time: Just as with making coffee in a cezve, just how many bubbles do you need in order to say that the coffee (or water) is ‘boiling’? How were you supposed to define boiling? How much did it matter?

Cezve, ibrik, Turkish Coffee Creative Commons license

Cezve, image © http://www.turkishcoffee.us

It turns out that these questions were not trivial. There is a thermometer in the science museum (in London) on which two boiling points of water are marked. The thermometer, designed by the instrument maker George Adams the Elder (1709 – 1773) marked a lower boiling point (where water begins to boil) and an upper boiling point (where the water boils vigorously). The two points differed by approximately 4C.  So how is it that we now all ‘know’ that water boils at 100C? And what was wrong with Adams’ thermometer? The Royal Society set up a committee to investigate the variability of the reported boiling point of water in 1776. Careful control of the heating conditions and water containers reduced the temperature difference observed between different amounts of boiling. However, as they experimented with very pure water in very clean containers they found that things just became more complicated. Water could be heated to 120C or even higher without ‘boiling’. They had, unintentionally, started investigating the phenomenon that we now know as ‘superheating‘. Superheating occurs when water is heated to a temperature far above its boiling point without actually boiling. What we recognise as boiling is the escape of gas (which is usually a mix of air and water vapour) from the body of the water to its surface. In order to escape like this, these bubbles have to form somehow. Small bubbles of dissolved air pre-existing in the water or micro-cracks in the walls of the container enable the water to evaporate and form steam. These bubbles of gas can then grow and the water ‘boils’. If you were to try to calibrate a thermometer using very pure water in very clean containers, it is highly likely that the water would superheat before it ‘boiled’, there just aren’t the ‘nucleation’ sites in the water to allow boiling to start. The Royal Society’s committee therefore came up with some recommendations on how to calibrate thermometers in conditions that avoided superheating which meant thermometers were subsequently calibrated more accurately and superheating (and improved calibration points) could be investigated more thoroughly.

Perhaps viewed in this way there are even more parallels between Turkish coffee and physics. It has been written that “making Turkish coffee is an art form“. It is a process of practising, questioning and practising again. The Beko coffee machine automates part of the process of making Turkish coffee. When it’s done well though, Turkish coffee is far more than just the temperature control and the mechanics of heating it. There is the process of assembling the ingredients, the time spent enjoying the coffee and the atmosphere created by the cafe in which you drink it. Coffee as art in Briki is something that I would willingly spend much more time contemplating.

 

Briki is at 67 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QL

“Inventing Temperature”, by Hasok Chang, Oxford University Press, 2004

*Although these aromatics are part of what gives coffee such a pleasurable taste, they decay very rapidly even in coffee that is left to stand for a while, it is this loss of the aromatics that is part of the reason that microwaving your coffee is a bad idea. A second reason involves the superheating effect, but perhaps more on that another day.

 

A gift fit for a King?

Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna, 1431-1506. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.

Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna, 1431-1506. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

There is currently a very thought provoking painting on display at the British Museum (although it will soon be gone, the Ming: 50 years exhibition, of which it is a part, ends on 5th January). The painting depicts the moment that the three kings, (or three wise men) present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. The three kings are on the right of the picture. Notice Melchior however, who is presenting gold to Jesus at the bottom of the painting. He presents his gold gift in a porcelain cup. The painting suggests just how valuable porcelain was to the Europeans of the 15th-16th century.

For many years, the Chinese had the monopoly on porcelain production and they ensured that the recipe was kept secret. Nonetheless, by the 17th century porcelain was being traded with Europe and by the 18th century the Europeans had started to mass produce it. Bramah has argued (in the excellent book “Coffee Makers”) that the explosion in popularity of tea and coffee drinking in Europe during the 17th-18th century was due to the introduction of porcelain into general use and its mass production. So it is worth taking a closer look at one of the key figures in the production of ceramics: Josiah Wedgwood.

Wedgwood painting

Portrait of Josiah Wedgwood, FRS. © Trustees of the British Museum

As a ceramics maker, Wedgwood (1730-1795) was interested in ensuring his pottery came out of the furnace well each time and to do that, he realised that he had to know the temperature of the oven. Other pottery producers of the time judged the furnace temperature by the colour (red hot, white hot etc), Wedgwood asked if there was a better way. Eventually he designed a “pyrometer” (“fire” meter) made from bricks of Cornish clay. Wedgwood used the fact that the clay shrank when fired. The amount that the clay shrank indicated the temperature of the oven. Wedgwood could then quantify what was “red” hot etc. Of course, there were problems. Wedgwood’s thermometer worked at temperatures of around 1000ºC, where ordinary alcohol or mercury based thermometers could not be used. How can the temperature scale (that became known as degrees Wedgwood) be correlated with the temperature scales that we are familiar with (such as degrees Centigrade)? Another, perhaps more significant problem was that the technique was not transferable to other practitioners, different clays shrank by different amounts. The Wedgwood scale required a specific Cornish clay. It was left to Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau to improve the pyrometer, basing his high temperature thermometer on the expansion of platinum. Today, we use devices based on electrical properties of metals to measure such high temperatures.

A porcelain bird feeder (1426-1435) from the Ming dynasty. © Trustees of the British Museum

A porcelain bird feeder (1426-1435) from the Ming dynasty. © Trustees of the British Museum

If you are in London, it is worth popping along to the Ming 50 years exhibition before it closes on 5th January 2015. Along with this painting, there are many examples there of excellent Chinese porcelain. One of the things that struck me as I went around the exhibition was just how annoyed visiting European diplomats must have been if they ever visited the Imperial palaces. Not only did the Chinese use this rare and valuable porcelain for cups, they also made exquisitely designed, porcelain, floor tiles and bird feeders. While in Europe we were struggling to make any porcelain, the Chinese were not only walking on bits of this valuable material, they were allowing their birds to feed from it too! An interesting history for next time you take a sip from your favourite mug.

Please leave any comments using the form below. I am very grateful to the image reproduction polices of the British Museum and the Getty Museum for the images shown in this article. Information was taken from:

“Coffee Makers”, Bramah&Bramah, Quillar Press Limited, 2002

“Inventing Temperature”, Hasok Chang, Oxford University Press, 2007