The New Coffee Houses of Knowledge
The early origins of maritime arbitration date back to 1688 when Edward Lloyd opened up a coffee shop on Tower Street in London. Soon anyone who had any interest in the latest maritime news—ships’ captains, shipowners, merchants—were frequenting his coffee house. Lloyd’s Coffee House became the center for the latest news on maritime deal-making, insurance, and arbitration. I had the good fortune to visit the site of the former coffee house of Lloyd’s where many a 17th-century maritime arbitration was resolved. Of course, Lloyd’s of London expanded beyond its humble origins and eventually became synonymous with maritime insurance. It was incorporated in 1871 as a “Society formerly held at Lloyd’s Coffee House in the Royal Exchange in the City of London, for the effecting of Marine Insurance.”
What was true for the maritime business was also true for other vocations and avocations. London coffee houses served as the venue for the sharing and exchange of specialized knowledge. As noted in this Economist article, in the late 17th century
“the coffee-houses you went to depended on your interests, for each coffee-house attracted a particular clientele, usually by virtue of its location…. They were nicknamed “penny universities” in a contemporary English verse which observed: “So great a Universitie, I think there ne’er was any; In which you may a Scholar be, for spending of a Penny.”… [C]offee-houses around the Royal Exchange were frequented by businessmen; those around St James’s and Westminster by politicians; those near St Paul’s Cathedral by clergymen and theologians…. Regulars could pop in once or twice a day, hear the latest news, and check to see if any post awaited them. That said, most people frequented several coffee-houses, the choice of which reflected their range of interests…. The more literary-minded, meanwhile, congregated at Will’s coffee-house in Covent Garden, where for three decades the poet John Dryden and his circle reviewed and discussed the latest poems and plays…. Other coffee-houses were hotbeds of financial innovation and experimentation, producing new business models in the form of innumerable novel variations on insurance, lottery or joint-stock schemes…. Far more controversial … was their potential as centres of political dissent. This was the objection raised in a proclamation by Charles II of England in 1675. Coffee-houses, it declared, had produced … ‘very evil and dangerous effects…for that in such Houses…divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majestie’s Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm.’”
Well you get the point. And I’m sure you see the modern parallel. As the Economist article suggests, the new coffee houses of today are all situated at various corners of the Internet. They are your favorite websites. On these sites “gossip passes freely—a little too freely, think some regulators and governments, which have tried and generally failed to rein them in. Snippets of political news are rounded up and analysed in weblogs, those modern equivalents of pamphlets and broadsides. Obscure scientific and medical papers, once available only to specialists, are just clicks away….”
At their best, specialty law blogs are a modern version of Lloyd’s Coffee House of the 1680s. Specialized clientele frequent these venues for breaking news on the latest court judgment that implicates their particular subject of interest. They have the potential to be a significant part of that new and glorious “penny university” that is the Internet. We frequent their pages because we share the same thirst for specialty knowledge with a community of like-minded individuals.
Perhaps we should be singing an updated version of an old 17th-century verse, “So great a university, no doubt there ne’er was any, in which you may a scholar be, and pay less than a penny.”