The first cola wars began in the 1700s—long before Coke and Pepsi

Illustration for article titled The first cola wars began in the 1700s—long before Coke and Pepsi

Those who think of sodas as fizzy poison may be surprised that the first steps towards turning the world's blood caramel-colored was officially meant to make the population healthier. Three different people fought to find a way to reproduce the healthful soda water to the public. Only one of their techniques survives. Welcome to the first iteration of the cola wars.

In the 1700s, generally a person's best medical option was soap, and so it's not surprising that people were desperate for other options. Medical centers and mystic healing communities sprang up around natural hot springs, where people bathed, hoping to cure their ailments. (Ideally, they did it with soap.) Water that seeped from the ground and was curiously, but non-fatally, bubbly was even more of an extraordinary phenomenon. People were encouraged not just to soak in them, but to drink these mineral waters, and they were credited with restoring health.

Naturally, the trips were expensive, and many people were not able to make the journey. It didn't take long for people to see the marketing opportunity. Joseph Priestley was the discoverer of oxygen, and so was a natural at wrangling gases. He made the first glass of artificial mineral water in 1767, and he did it in the simplest way possible - by starting with a beverage that was already fizzy. Priestley simply suspended water over fizzing beer and let the gas seep into one liquid from the other. No sooner did he do it when a man called John Mervin Nooth, tweaked his design to make it more compact and then sold it. The two were hampered by one thing, though. The amount of soda water that could be made was limited by the amount of beer to be had, and brewers were reluctant to risk their beer - which always sold - for water which might not.


Along came the guy who made soda what it is today. Torbern Bergman was a Swedish chemist who devoted himself to making the best chemical affinity table ever yet seen. A chemical affinity table is an index that shows which chemicals combine with which others to form compounds, and what chemical reactions different combinations of chemicals go through. He found that, to get the CO2 gas that permeated mineral water, all one had to do was pour sulfuric acid over calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate was easily found in limestone and chalk, and sulfuric acid was tougher to get, but not particularly rare. The combination made enough gas to permeate many bottles of water. He developed a method that involved collecting the gas and injecting it into pressurized bottles of water. Suddenly, there was gas for everyone.

It's not really Bergman's fault that mineral waters evolved into purveyors of the very thing that mineral water was created to stop. Still, you have to wonder whether any current inventions will turn into their own antithesis. Hopefully it will be something less tasty next time.

Via Soda History, Pitt, Wisegeek, and Carbonated Soft Drink Consumption.

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Corpore Metal

Although I occasionally like some "flat" soft drinks, like flavored iced teas and lemonades, I detest carbonated beverages. They make my nose hurt when I burp. These even extends to medicinal seltzers and cold medicines. I mean, I'll take them—they seem to work particularly well for me—but under some duress.