History of the Soda Fountain

Inventors and Patents

In 1767, the well reputed English chemist Joseph Priestley (who would be better remembered for isolating oxygen in its gaseous state) was the first to artificially carbonate water by hanging a filled vessel over a fermentation vat at a brewery in Leeds (fermentation vats naturally give off CO2 in the process of converting sugars into low alcohol).  This initial success led to further experimentation and a published paper entitled, Impregnating Water with Fixed Air.  The paper described a means of chemical carbonation by dripping vitriol (sulfuric acid) into powdered chalk (calcium carbonate) producing CO2 gas.  This gas was then infused into agitated water, inducing a reaction and effervescence. 

John Matthews brought soda water to America. Born in England, he apprenticed in the shop of inventor Joseph Bramah, as a teenager, and learned how to make machinery, and, more importantly, learned how to make carbonic acid gas, the essential ingredient for soda water. In 1832, he left England for America, and soon set up shop where he began to manufacture carbonating machinery and sell soda water to local retailers.
Once Matthews, landed in America, he developed a lead-lined chamber wherein sulphuric acid and powdered marble (also known as calcium carbonate) were mixed together to generate carbon dioxide. The gas was then purified and manually mixed into cool water with steady agitation, creating carbonated water. Matthews’ design worked either as a bottling unit or a soda fountain, since it produced enough carbonated water to last customers all day. But America’s weak glass industry still wasn’t able to support large-scale bottling plants, so the simplest way to sell soda water was at public fountains.
Matthews’ business took off when he realized he could use marble chips to make soda water, and that there was an ample supply thanks to the many construction projects taking place in New York. In fact, there were enough scrap marble chips from the construction of nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral to make 25 million gallons of soda water. Matthews’ other advantage over his competitors was his rather ingenious human-safety-valve in the form of an ex-slave named Ben Austen. At the time, safety valves were unreliable, and there were frequent explosions. Ben Austen had a large and powerful thumb that he held over the pressure cock. When the pressure blew Austen’s thumb off the pressure cock, the pressure in the tank had reached the desired limit of 150 pounds and the pressurization was stopped. The term “Ben’s thumb” was part of the jargon in the soda water manufacturing industry, meaning the soda water was at the proper pressure.
John Matthews’ business continued to prosper, and he opened up numerous soda fountains, sold soda water, added flavoring to soda water, and licensed soda water apparatus. By the time he died, Matthews owned over 500 soda fountains he was known as the “Soda Fountain King”.

James W. Tufts manufactured functional items such as napkin rings, tooth pick holders, and cruet castor sets.  Most importantly though James W. Tufts at the age twenty-seven, developed a complete line of soda fountains, parts, and supplies which included flavored extracts. Tufts also started The Arctic Soda Fountain Company, to manufacture his own soda fountain apparatus’. The Tufts fountains were very ornate and were made from beautiful Italian marble, block tin, and heavy silver plate for sanitary reasons. In 1877, The Tufts Arctic Soda Fountain Company published its own catalog, offering a complete line of soda fountains. Most were elaborate, with multiple spigots, cherubs, figures of women or animals, plants and ferns, and weathervanes. In 1891, Tuft’s Arctic Soda Fountain Company consolidated with A. D. Puffer and Sons of Boston, John Matthews of New York and Charles Lippincott of Philadelphia to become the American Soda Fountain Company with James W. Tufts as the company’s president. In 1895, when James Tufts was sixty, he sold his part of the business.

Johann Jacob Schweppe.,  was able to simplify carbonation through the application of two common compounds – sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid.  Schweppe branded this process the Geneva System and in 1783, would  set up mass production under the new Schweppes brand.  These early waters were sold under the guise of medicinal remedies, needless to say the true effects only aided in hydrating patients, not healing them.
After his initial success in Switzerland, Schweppe moved his company to England in 1792 where he set up his first mass production factory in London, marketing three different strengths of bubbles;

  1. For the dinner table to relieve biliousness (digestion pain).
  2. For patients afflicted with nephritic syndrome (kidney disorder).
  3. For sufferers with violent bladder or kidney stone distress.

Schweppes’ product was made all the more unique, thanks to a patented torpedo shaped bottle invented by a William Hamilton.  Initially, bottles were made out of earthenware and Schweppes discovered that gas slowly escaped through the porous stone and so turned to glass for his solution.  Thanks to the round base of the Hamilton, the bottles were stored on their side ensuring the cork stoppers remains wet and therefore retained their swollen seal against escaping gas.  These bottles could be initially purchased for 6 shillings, 6 pennies which according to National Archives, equates to around £20.40 in today’s currency.  As the secret and popularity of carbonation spread, many replications of the Hamilton bottle were produced but only the original would bear the name Schweppes & Co.




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