Blog EntriesContemporary Society

Who Invented the Coffee Cup? (The Answer Might Surprise You)


The truth is I don't know. But after reading The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester you, too, might find yourself wondering about your morning mug as you wait for water to boil.

The Man Who Loved China is part biography, part history, part science, and wholly interesting due to Winchester's engaging writing style.

Joseph Needham was a brilliant Cambridge professor whose eccentricities included an open marriage and being used as a political pawn. He met Lu Gwei-djen in 1937 and in addition to becoming enamored with her; he fell for her country, China. He first visited China in 1943 at the height of WWII and as he traveled around discovered that China had been advanced in virtually every area until the 1500s when she shut herself off from the world.

In the 50s he started a project entitled Science and Civilisation in China that he thought would be a comprehensive tome. Let's just say he was a little off as there are now 24 volumes! Think Oxford English Dictionary or Encyclopedia Britannica.

The appendix lists Chinese inventions and discoveries and gives the earliest recorded date. Some are as you'd expect (abacus, chopsticks, gun powder, or Great Wall), but not all. For fun, here is one item from each letter and the amount of entries for each letter. Not everyone is as into math as I am, so I really did limit myself from listing all things math. {You're welcome.}

A (15) antimalarial drugs (3rd century BC)

B (24) bookworm repellent

C (28) crossbow (5th century BC)

D (16) decimal place value (13th century BC)

E (6) - ephedrine (2nd century AD)

F (9) folding chairs (3rd century AD thus my morning cup wondering)

G (15) gluten from wheat (AD 530)

H (10) handgun (AD 1128)

I (2) indeterminate analysis (4th century AD)

K (2) kite (4th century BC)

L (4) ladders, extendable (4th century BC)

M (27) moxibustion (cupping, 3rd century BC)

N (4) - negative numbers, operations using (1st century AD)

O (1) oil lamps, economics (9th century AD)

P (32) "pi," accurate estimation of (3rd century AD), placenta used as a source of estrogen (AD 725), playing cards (AD 969) {P was too interesting for just one!}

Q (1) qin and se zither

R (10) reel on fishing rod (3rd century AD)

S (36) smokescreens (AD 178), stirrup (AD 300)

T (8) thyroid treatment (1st century AD), toothbrush (9th century AD, really?! Let's not think of mouths before that)

V (1) vinegar (2nd century BC)

W (10) weather vane (120 BC)

Z (1) Zoetrope (AD 180, mechanical toy. I had to look it up)

I know! Pretty interesting list with a little something for everyone. The Man Who Loved China will open your eyes, entertain, and educate. Get it, and that's not just a smokescreen ploy (which, by the way, would not have been a great line prior to AD 178!)

Originally posted at The Messy Middle on January 16, 2013.

Image credit: It's Coffee Time, by Gina Jones at Flickr

Amy Young

Amy Young

When Amy Young first moved to China she knew three Chinese words: hello, thank you, and watermelon. Today she blogs regularly at The Messy Middle  and is the director of global operations for Velvet Ashes. She has also authored two books written to help those who live and serve in... View Full Bio