How did we turn water into cola? And what does that say about us?
Once we knelt by a stream to scoop water with bare hands. Now we pull a tab on an aluminum can and drink ingredients we cannot name from places we may not know mixed in ways we do not understand.
Coca-Cola is a branch on our 50,000-year-old tree of new. It is there because water is our most important nutrient. If we do not drink water, we die within five days. If we drink the wrong water, we die of waterborne diseases like cyclosporiasis, microsporidiosis, coenurosis, cholera and dysentery. Thirst should limit us to places within a day or two’s walk of potable water and make migration and exploration dangerous. But a thousand generations developed tools to make water portable and potable and allow us to live far away from rivers and lakes.
Early technologies for carrying and storing water included skins, hollowed gourds called calabashes and — 18,000 years ago — pottery. Ten thousand years ago we developed wells, which allowed constant access to fresh groundwater. Three thousand years ago people in China started drinking tea — a step that may have coincided with the boiling of water, a practice which killed disease-bearing microorganisms. The existence of these organisms was not discovered for another 2,500 years, but as the technology of tea spread gradually from China through the Middle East and eventually, around 1600 CE, to Europe, tea drinkers began to suspect water was healthier when boiled. Boiling also enabled free-ranging travel as water found along the way could now be made safe.
The best but least portable source of pure water is the spring — nature’s equivalent of a well, where ground water flows up from an aquifer to ground level. This water, clean and rich in minerals, has been revered for thousands of years; natural springs are often considered sacred sites of healing. Some spring water is naturally effervescent.
As bottles — first developed by the Phoenicians of the Middle East 2,500 years ago — became more common, it was at last possible to transport sacred water, with its healing purity and high mineral content, from the spring to other places. Once bottled and transported, these “mineral waters” could also be flavored.
Some of the earliest flavored waters were Persian sharbats, or sherbets, first described in Ismail Gorgani’s twelfth-century medical encyclopedia, Zakhireye Khwarazmshahi. Sharbats were made using crushed fruits, herbs and flower petals. About a hundred years later, people in Britain drank water mixed with fermented dandelion and the roots of a thistle called burdock, which made it effervescent. Hundreds more years later, similar drinks were made in Asia and the Americas, using parts of a prickly Central American vine called sarsaparilla or the roots of sassafras trees. Both spring water and drinks made with flowers and herbs were thought to have health benefits.
In the late 1770s, chemists began to replicate the properties of spring water and herbal drinks. In Sweden, Torbern Bergman made water effervescent using carbon dioxide. In Britain, Joseph Priestley did the same. Johann Jacob Schweppe, a Swiss-German, commercialized Priestley’s process, and started the Schweppes company in 1783. The mineral content of spring water was replicated with phosphate and citrus to make drinks called orange or lemon “phosphates.” Phosphates, also known as “acids,” was a popular name for flavored effervescent water in the United States into the twentieth century.
As mineralization and carbonation became common, the healing properties associated with spring water receded in favor of remedies and tonics that contained exotic ingredients, such as the African baobab fruit and roots supposedly extracted from swamps. Many of these “patent medicines” contained cocaine and opium, which made them effective in treating pain (if nothing else) and also addictive.
One of these medicines, invented by chemist John Pemberton in Georgia in 1865, included kola nut and coca leaf, as well as alcohol. 20 years later, when parts of Georgia banned alcohol consumption, Pemberton made a non-alcoholic version, which he called “Coca-Cola.” He sold the formula to Asa Candler in 1887.
A few years earlier, the German Robert Koch became one of several European scientists to discover that disease was caused by bacteria. This discovery marked the beginning of the end for remedies and tonics. During the next two decades, medicine became scientific, and also regulated. Harvey Washington Wiley, Chief Chemist at the United States Department of Agriculture, led a crusade that ended with the signing of the US Food and Drug Act in 1906 and the creation of the government agency that became the US Food and Drug Administration.
In retreat as a medicine, Coca-Cola syrup was mixed with carbonated water in drugstores, and its health claims were softened to ambiguous adjectives such as “refreshing” or “invigorating.” At first, the carbonated water was added manually, and the drink was only available at soda fountains. Bottling was such a foreign idea that, in 1899, Candler sold the US bottling rights, in perpetuity, to two young lawyers for one dollar.
This may seem like an amazing mistake. Bottling Coca-Cola became a huge business, and yet Asa Candler gave it up for a buck. Why? Because in 1899 things weren’t so obvious. Glass was not easy to mass-produce in the 1800s and Candler may have assumed that bottling would be a small business forever. But glass and bottling technologies were improving. In 1870 Englishman Hiram Codd developed a soda bottle that used a marble as a stopper — an ingenious approach that took advantage of the pressure from the carbonation to push the marble up the neck of the bottle to form a seal. Today, these Codd bottles sell at auction for thousands of dollars. As bottle technology improved, so Coca-Cola bottling increased. Ten years after Candler sold his bottling rights, there were four hundred Coca-Cola bottling plants in the United States. Coca-Cola, once tied to the soda fountain at the drugstore lunch counter, had become portable.
The story of the can begins with Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon lost more soldiers to malnutrition than to combat and concluded that “an army marches on its stomach.” In 1795 the French revolutionary government offered a 12,000 franc prize to anyone who could invent a way to preserve food and make it portable. Nicolas Appert, a Parisian confectioner, spent fifteen years experimenting and ultimately developed an approach that bottled food in an airtight container and then boiled it. As with water for tea, the boiling killed bacteria — in this case the bacteria that caused food to rot, a phenomenon that would not be understood for another hundred years. Appert sent sealed bottles that included eighteen types of food, ranging from partridge to vegetables, to soldiers at sea, who opened them after four months and found fresh, unspoiled food inside. Appert had won the prize, and Napoleon awarded it to him personally.
Appert’s preservation technology was viewed as a weapon by France’s enemies, the British. Preserved food extended Napoleon's reach. The army that marched on its stomach could now march further. Britain’s response was immediate: inventor Peter Durand improved upon Appert’s approach by using cans made of tin instead of bottles. King George III awarded him a patent for his invention. Whereas glass bottles were fragile and difficult to transport, Durand’s cans were far more likely to survive the march to war. Canned food quickly became popular among travelers. It helped fuel the voyages of German Otto von Kotzebue, British Admiral William Edward Parry in his quest to find the North Pole, the California Gold Rush which started in 1848 and saw 300,000 people move to California, establishing San Francisco as a major city in the process, and extended the range of both armies in the American Civil War.
The early tin cans were not suitable for soda. They couldn’t contain the pressure of carbonation without being made thicker, and the acidic nature of sodas caused reactions with the tin. Coca-Cola experimented with coated tin cans during the 1950s. In a coincidence that nods to Napoleon and the origins of canning, they were developed to supply American soldiers fighting a distant war in Korea. The tin cans were heavy, expensive to produce and there was always a risk that the acidity in the Coke would cause a toxic reaction with the can. These problems were solved in 1964 with the introduction of the first soda cans made of aluminum. Coca-Cola adopted them — proudly emblazoned with the words “ALL ALUMINUM CAN” — in 1967.
This story, which runs from Phoenician bottles through Chinese tea, sacred springs, Persian sharbats, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Korean war, shows the needs which led to cans of Coca-Cola everywhere. Coca-Cola exists because we get thirsty. It exists because water can be dangerous and we cannot all live next to a spring. It exists because people got sick and hoped that herbs and roots and tree bark from far-off places might help them. It exists because we sometimes need to travel — to flee, hunt or search for better places and ways. Coca-Cola exists not because of a need for luxury but because of a need for life.
Like all tools, Coca-Cola is flawed. Aluminum begins in bauxite strip mines, which bulldoze surface land away to reveal the ore below. The mines are devastating. In 2002, a British mining company, Vedanta, requested approval to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills of East India, home to an indigenous tribal people called the Dongria Kondh. The plan, which was approved by the Indian government, would have destroyed the tribe’s way of life, and also their sacred mountain. International protests, led by the tribe themselves, put a stop to the mine, but it was a close call — and one that of course had no impact on bauxite mines in Australia, Brazil, Guinea, Jamaica and more than a dozen other countries around the world. High-fructose corn syrup, produced from corn using enzymes derived from bacteria and mold, has been cited as a cause of rising obesity, especially in the United States. Americans ate 113 pounds of sugar per person in 1966. By 2009 this had risen to 130 pounds per person.
Caffeine can be intoxicating and addictive if overused, causing vomiting or diarrhea: symptoms that can result in dehydration — the opposite of drinking. Caffeine in soda is a particular problem for children: they now drink an average of 109 milligrams per day — double the intake of children in the 1980s.
Even though aluminum is easily recycled, most aluminum cans are disposed of in landfill sites, where they take hundreds of years to decompose. The production and distribution of each can adds around half a pound of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
The Coca-Cola Company has been an effective proponent of global trade and has succeeded in manufacturing and selling its product all over the world, a strategy that has caused conflict and concern in many countries including India, China, Mexico and Colombia.
So, do better tools always lead to a better life? Does making better things always make things better? How can we be sure that making things better won’t make things worse?
These are questions we must ask. Sometimes technology’s flaws are dangerous — even deadly. Early competitors to Coke included root beer and sarsaparilla, both made with fermented roots of the sassafras trees, an ingredient which is now banned because it is suspected of causing liver disease and cancer. Glass once contained enough lead to cause lead poisoning, one consequence of which can be gout, a painful inflammation that usually affects the joint of the big toe. Gout was long known as the “rich man's disease,” because its sufferers were so often from the upper classes of society — people like King Henry VIII, John Milton, Isaac Newton and Theodore Roosevelt. Benjamin Franklin went so far as to write a “Dialogue between Franklin and the Gout.” Dated “midnight, October 22, 1780,” the dialogue recounts a conversation where Franklin asks his gout to explain what he did “to merit these cruel sufferings.” He assumed they were the result of too much food and not enough exercise, and “Madam Gout” chides him for his laziness and gluttony. In fact, the cause of the “rich man’s disease,” for Franklin and all the others, was lead crystal decanters, which were used by the upper classes for storing and serving port, brandy and whisky. “Lead crystal” is not crystal at all, but glass with high lead content. The lead can leach from the glass into the alcohol and cause lead poisoning, which causes gout.
Lead poisoning may also have afflicted the majority of Roman emperors, including Claudius, Caligula and Nero, who drank wine flavored with syrup made in lead pots. This had consequences far beyond gout. Their lead poisoning was so severe that it probably caused organ, tissue and brain problems — severe symptoms which affected so many emperors that they likely contributed to the end of the Roman Empire.
New is neutral, nether good nor bad. But new things tend to be good for some people and bad for others, or good now and bad later, or both. New things have new and therefore unknown consequences.
This does not absolve us of responsibility for our inventions. The urge to create new things may be innate, but the desire to make a particular new thing is choice. Because invention is innate not instilled, we make this choice with predictable and constant tendencies, even if we are not aware of them. We invent things we believe will benefit ourselves personally and immediately and have a positive effect on our group, which will earn us survival, prestige and reward. We invent to improve our lives and the lives of those with whom we feel fellowship. We are inclined to deny, discount or dismiss the impact on others, if they are from another group or place or time. We prefer perspectives that look away from uncomfortable consequences, or at least relegate them to peripheral vision.
The people of the Coca-Cola Company may say their innovations enrich themselves, their families and their shareholders. They may believe they are providing their customers, of which there are billions, with delicious hydration and that is conveniently available almost anywhere. They may think that by doing all this they create jobs and wealth in their communities and tax revenue for local and national governments. They may be likely to discount, dispute, or simply be less aware of the possible adverse effects of their new technologies, such as the impact of bauxite mines on local people, the consequences of high-fructose corn syrup on public health, or billions of aluminum cans wasting over centuries in landfills. This is not to single out anyone in particular. Coke is but an example. We are all like this. The tendency to invent at the expense of others is not failure but nature. Knowing this, we may at least make our choices more consciously.
The answer to these problems is not less invention, but more. Invention causes problems then solves them. Invention helps us diagnose what is happening and why, and it enables us to stop it from happening again — by, for example, replacing lead glass bottles with aluminum cans. These new solutions will be flawed too, and once again invention will both identify and solve these problems, because invention is an act of infinite and imperfect iteration. New solutions beget new problems which beget new solutions. This is the cycle of our species. It has always been this way, it will always be this way. We will always make things better. We will never make them best. Almost all inventors try to invent responsibly and ethically, but bad things still happen — not because of ignorance or indifference but invention itself. New solutions cause new problems.
Because new technology has always caused new problems, some people always believe that their generation’s new technology is uniquely flawed, that they live in an age of uniquely adverse consequences and that the human race has finally taken its tool making too far. They claim the past was slower and simpler and see technological regress, not progress, as a way to make things better. This is fantasy. The past had its own problems and the ones that got solved got forgotten. These problems led to shorter, harder lives for most people. Today’s technology supports the largest human population ever and we are living longer, fuller lives. Our tools, the legacy of our ancestors, enable this. It is our uniquely human nature to keep making them better. We are the species of new. Invention is not what we choose but who we are.
“Why Coke Exists” is an extract from my book, “How to Fly a Horse — The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” available here. If you would like to get news of more posts like this one, like my Facebook page.