Moments in History

The Soda Fountain Of Civilization

Gives shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.

I’ll have a splash of everything.

I have never liked fizz. My experience with fountain machines usually involves the leftover residue of pink lemonade enveloping my cup of water like Saran Wrap. Still, I’ve held on to a childlike fascination for far too long. Two flavors from one nozzle! Syrup that reacts with water and makes it fizzy! How do they do it?

They use carbonated water. Amazing I can dress myself.

Modern soft drinks evolved from the ‘patent’ medicines of the 1800’s. [1] Though Dr. Pepper, Hires Root Beer, and many others have long since shed their medicinal pretensions, the method hasn’t changed: make an inexpensive syrup or powder, mix it at the point of sale or a local bottling plant, and sell it cheaply, but at a huge percentage of profit.

The low costs, enormous profits, and scalable business model meant advertising budgets in the millions paid off in the millions. Barns and signs painted with brands and slogans covered the countryside. The flourishing transcontinental rail network allowed products to reach a national audience. And it didn’t hurt to have an addictive product.

Hat Tip.

Coca-Cola was named for its specialty ingredients: the coca leaf, and the kola nut. It was created in anticipation of Atlanta’s trial alcohol prohibition of 1886-1887, which threatened Dr. John Pemberton’s current product: wine with added cocaine. Cocaine was the wonder drug of the 1860s. It cured opium addicts! Invigorated the mind and body! And had no side effects! [2] One brand of coca-wine was famously endorsed by an unsleeping Thomas Edison. In 1880s Atlanta, a shot of cocaine-laced water was cheaper than a shot of Whiskey. Cocaine was an obvious choice for a new cure-all. My understanding (and benefit of the doubt) is that there was only ever a small amount of actual cocaine in the syrup. This was eliminated just ahead of the 1903 cocaine ban. [3] The coca leaves remained, though. Today, Coca-Cola is the only entity permitted to handle coca leaves in the United States, thanks to a federal exemption.

It kills me that marketing has always tended toward poor, inaccurate grammar.

Stay on the Ballmer peak.

The kola nut, meanwhile, contributed a large amount of caffeine. In 1911, this led to an attack by the nascent FDA. Every over-the-top argument about any drug being the downfall of children and society was hurled at caffeine. But, perhaps due to the acceptance of coffee and tea, and the fact that many children already were drinking soft drinks, neither the judiciary nor the public were convinced. Coca-Cola won the case, but later agreed to reduce the amount of caffeine by half, and never feature children in its advertisements, which lasted until 1985.

Soft drinks are coming under fire again today, but for decades they were a default, distinctly American choice for people of all ages, all over the world. Coca-Cola, the most recognized brand in the world, became a symbol, maybe of a lifestyle, maybe of a worldview. But the tiny dissolved bubbles of carbon dioxide, which some say were added to the recipe accidentally, have a much longer history and a much deeper meaning to our civilization.

Who ordered that last pitcher?

Drink your wages.

The first humans to taste carbonation probably lived around 12,000 years ago. They were also among the first to arrange their lives around cereal grasses. They stayed nearby to guard the fields, systematically harvesting, and eventually cultivating wheat instead of roaming a much larger area. In order to make it more digestible, they would soak it in water. They discovered that the moistened seeds began to germinate, turning their starches into sugars. Drying the grains sweetened by this process is known as malting. And later still, they found that a malted gruel could be saved for long periods of time, and it became slightly fizzy, and slightly intoxicating.

Beer is the original energy drink.

The sugar from a malted cereal grain is food for yeast, which can be found in the air as well as on the grains themselves. [4] The yeast eat the sugar and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. By killing pathogens, the alcohol made the beer much safer to drink than water. Along with the stored calories, this made it the perfect staple food for early civilization. As time went on, recipes became more advanced, and chaff straining improved. Certain pitch baskets, shells, stone vessels, or leather containers emerged as favorites because of strains of yeast that stayed in the edges in cracks from brew to brew. Different varieties began to emerge: Sumerian cuneiform lists at least 20 different types, all with their own ‘labels’, and Egyptian hieroglyphs list at least 6 varieties.

While a beer proportions different grain ingredients for a consistent result, wines vary from grape to grape, and from year to year. Wine appeared shortly after the invention of ceramic pottery that could be sealed, thanks to an abundance of yeast on grape skins. The juices undergo the same chemical reaction as malted grains, but wines are traditionally degassed before bottling and storage. Champagne is the obvious exception. Traditionally, the bubbles and flying corks were the result of a second fermentation after bottling. Today, some champagnes and sparkling wines are the product of artificial carbonation.

That discovery is usually attributed to Joseph Priestley, who was working with the heavier-than-air carbon dioxide rolling off the top of vats in the local brewery. He collected and pressurized the gas, and found it would dissolve in water sharing the container. Instead of depending on fermentation, later innovators produced carbon dioxide using sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and an acid (say, vinegar). Hence the name: soda water.

Video: Carbonating: The Cheap and Easy Way

Try this at home: Last, combine the two in one bottle, seal it up and shake, Second, connect the caps of two bottles with a tube to allow gas to flow. And firstly, fill a different bottle with any drink of your choice. The result carries the mark of the earliest civilized humans. Our survival, and then our cultures, and then our luxuries have all grown out of and revolved around carbonation. The bubbles were a mark of modernity long before the modern Western world appropriated them. So when the carbon-based aliens land, fix them a fizzy drink.

These straws are sane.

Sharing a bottle.

[1] ‘Patent’ medicines, as a rule, weren’t patented, because that would require a disclosure of the usually mundane and/or worthless and/or dangerous ingredients. Many non-syrup ‘medicines’ were simply alcoholic. Several daily ‘cures’ targeted at the delicate Victorian women and endorsed by temperance advocates were eventually revealed to be as strong as 40-proof.

[2] Kurt Vonnegut taught me to be suspicious of exclamation points.

[3] The health claims had also been quietly dropped by 1895.

[4] Leave yeast-free dough out in the open to capture local yeast varieties.

Sources, Further Reading, Things I Stumbled Across That Were Too Good Not To Link:

A History Of The World In Six Glasses, by Tom Standage, Walker & Company, NY 2005 – Highly, highly recommended.

For God, Country & Coca-Cola, by Mark Pendergrast, Basic Books, NY 1993

Champagne For Dummies, by Ed McCarthy, IDG Books 1999

Marble Draught Stand, public domain via Wikimedia

Peruvian Wine Of Coca, public domain via Wikimedia

Mesopotamian Beer Tab, via The British Museum

Sumerian Social Drinking, Woolley 1934, pl.200, no.102, via the Cuneiform Digital Library Journal 2012

Moxie Nerve Food, public domain via Wikimedia

On The Origins And Relationships Between Bread And Beer, by Rugutis

Drink, by Sam Andrew

Brewing: A Legacy Of Ancient Times, by David M. Kiefer

Priestly’s Sody Water, by Bruce Mattson, Emily Saunders, and Penney Sconzo

Alternative liquid courage.

Bottled water, too.

  • That fizz you feel on your tongue is not the tiny bubbles bursting, but a reaction of your sour taste buds to the carbon.

    "…researchers have long known that the carbonic anhydrase enzyme must somehow be involved in the enjoyment of carbonation, because mountain climbers who take altitude-sickness drugs that block this enzyme have reported that champagne and other bubbly beverages taste like dishwater."

    Also, on the topic of caffeine and the teetotalers; a San Francisco City Attorney is trying to force Monster Energy Drink to stop marketing to children. This, of course, has made the taboo product almost irresistible to rebellious teenagers. We call that perverse psychology.

    • jalopjackie

      Ha, that just gave me the silliest naming idea for an energy-drink cocktail: Streisand's Monster.

      I'm no bartender, though — anyone care to cook up a recipe to match the name?

      • jeepjeff

        Make a cosmopolitan, pour it into a 12oz beer glass with a can of Monster Energy Drink.

  • "The first humans to taste carbonation probably lived around 12,000 years ago."

    Induced carbonation, perhaps, but I suspect people were drinking from naturally carbonated springs well before then.

    • skitter

      Didn't think of that. Are there any that are not carbonated as a result of volcanic activity, and are there any in central Africa or Mesopotamia?

      • jeepjeff

        I would be shocked to find out there aren't plenty of hot springs in and around the Rift Valley and through Mesopotamia. The Rift Valley is a forming plate boundary, and Mesopotamia is encircled by plate boundaries. These are prime areas for active fault zones and volcanic activity.

        Also, there are many traditions that ascribe healing properties to hot springs. I would also be shocked if the issue of potability kept sick, desperate people who believe in magic (even in our modern, scientific world) from drinking from hot springs, given that they thought any brief discomfort would be followed by a cure to all that ails them.

  • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

    Skitter, great article, thanks. Here's a thing I did for some cub scouts. Mix the vinegar and baking soda. The CO2 will fill the container. Light a candle in a glass (some come like that). Then tip the first container with the CO2 over the candle, but not to spill the liquid. It will extinguish like magic. You can do it a few times in a row until you run out of CO2.