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Technology and Culture 45.4 (2004) 795-807

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Engineering the Perfect Cup of Coffee

Samuel Prescott and the Sanitary Vision at MIT

In 1936, Fortune magazine featured a spread on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an apostle of science and handmaiden to industry. Twenty-six hundred fresh MIT graduates would soon join a group of alumni that included "the heads of General Motors, General Electric, Goodyear Tire, Eastman Kodak, Stone and Webster—and ten du Ponts."1 While true, such praise was a little out of date, for Karl Compton, the institute's president, had worked hard since his arrival in 1930 to wrest control of the institute's agenda away from industry and refurbish its reputation in fundamental science.

The Fortune piece nicely illustrated the school's move to the cutting-edge, with scenes of sophisticated laboratories and modern instruments, such as a massive six-million-volt Van de Graaff generator. Above a picture of the institute's imposing façade, as seen at night from the Charles River, the magazine arrayed portraits of Compton's three deans: Vannevar Bush, dean of engineering; William Emerson, dean of architecture; and, between them, posed at his laboratory bench, Samuel Prescott, dean of science (fig. 1).

But there was in fact a hidden irony in Prescott's presence in that triumvirate, for, behind the scenes, Bush and Compton were struggling to reform a biology program they considered seriously behind the times.2 [End Page 795] Compton and Prescott were cut from very different bolts of cloth, as would have been obvious if the magazine's editors had not cropped Prescott's picture as they did. In the uncropped version (fig. 2), lined up along the top of the cabinet behind Prescott are a number of tins of coffee—indeed, most of the brands of coffee popular during the early part of the century—and lying on the bench in front of him is a folder bearing the words "The New Science of Automatically Controlled Coffee Making." In the flask? Probably fresh-brewed coffee. The magazine, in truth, lost a piece of the past when that photo was cropped, a past that involved a younger Samuel Prescott and a three-year quest for the perfect cup of coffee. It is a story that tells much about a vision of health and happiness at MIT that was simultaneously humanistic and industry friendly.

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Figure 1
Prescott's portrait as it appeared in Fortune, November 1936. (Photo courtesy of the MIT Museum.)
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As wine has never been just wine to the French, so coffee was never simply coffee to Americans.3 As much sign and circumstance as substance, by [End Page 796] the twenties coffee had become the national beverage, and it encompassed a wide range of attitudes about modernity, the good life, and even the nation's place in the global scheme of things.4 It could express heroic accomplishment—witness the barbershop porter from Minnesota who drank eighty cups of coffee in seven hours and fifteen minutes and survived, the New York Times reported, "in pretty good shape."5 It soothed the happy home, cemented marriages, and, as "the most grateful lubricant known to the human machine," was a welcome aid to industrial efficiency.6 It even promised to be a force for the advance of democratic civilization, an aid—as its chief historian noted in 1922—to the "world democracy of right-living and clear thinking" that was to follow the Peace of Versailles.7 But there

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Figure 2
The uncropped photo of Prescott. (Photo courtesy of the MIT Museum.)
[End Page 797]

was ordinary coffee, and there was Samuel Prescott's perfect cup of coffee, a brew that required, in addition to beans, a global economy, an emerging culture of consumption, and the cult of the expert.

From 1830 to 1900, per capita consumption of coffee in the United States quadrupled. The increase resulted from the aggressive commercial network that expanded to link coffee elites in...


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pp. 795-807
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