A Brief History of Coffee

This was a group project completed for Design Across Scales (4.110/MAS.330). We had to “design a representational system”; that is, take a set of data and represent it in some way. As you can probably tell, it was a very open-ended prompt.

Because coffee only appeared as a drink around the 16th century, the word for coffee is a cognate in almost every language — the original Arabic name for coffee, qahwah, was just transliterated. In comparison, milk (lait/leche/mjólk/gála/süt), water (eau/agua/vatn/neró/su) and wine (vin/vino/vín/krasí/şarap) have been around long enough that the words for these drinks evolved separately, so the words are cognates in some languages but not others. We were interested in showing both the spread of coffee out of North Africa and into Europe, and the surprising stability of the word used for the drink.

Finding the year that coffee was introduced to each country in Europe and the Middle East was sometimes tricky because many political borders have shifted since the 17th century. We generalized in some cases — coffee appeared in Vienna in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1683, so we counted that as the year of introduction for both Hungary and Austria — but tried to stay as true to the data as possible.

(There is one error in this video that was a result of mis-transcription: coffee first appears in Egypt in 1510, not 1610.)


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