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It spread into the Islamic world during the 15th century, where it was embraced as an alternative to alcohol, which was forbidden (officially, at least) to Muslims.
Coffee came to be regarded as the very antithesis of alcoholic drinks, sobering rather than intoxicating, stimulating mental activity and heightening perception rather than dulling the senses.
On one occasion a group of scientists including Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley dissected a dolphin on the premises.
Scientific lectures and experiments also took place in coffee-houses, such as the Marine, near St Paul's, which were frequented by sailors and navigators.
This reputation accompanied coffee as it spread into western Europe during the 17th century, at first as a medicine, and then as a social drink in the Arab tradition.
Like today's websites, weblogs and discussion boards, coffee-houses were lively and often unreliable sources of information that typically specialised in a particular topic or political viewpoint.
Rumours, news and gossip were also carried between coffee-houses by their patrons, and sometimes runners would flit from one coffee-house to another within a particular city to report major events such as the outbreak of a war or the death of a head of state.
Coffee-houses were centres of scientific education, literary and philosophical speculation, commercial innovation and, sometimes, political fermentation.
That said, most people frequented several coffee-houses, the choice of which reflected their range of interests.
A merchant, for example, would generally oscillate between a financial coffee-house and one specialising in Baltic, West Indian or East Indian shipping.
They were outlets for a stream of newsletters, pamphlets, advertising free-sheets and broadsides.