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Happy Birthday, Friedlieb Runge!

Read time: 1 min
An illustration of Friedlieb Runge next to a caffeine molecule.
Christopher C. Feb 08, 2022

You may not immediately picture a suave 18th-century dude when you think about caffeine. Does the name Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge ring a bell? If it does, congrats! If not, no one blames you. Runge discovered caffeine way back in 1819, and we've been relying on it for the last 204 years! Well, we've been relying on it since folklore legend Kaldi's curious goats munched on a coffee plant in ninth-century Ethiopia—we just didn't know what to call it. Caffeine.

The chemical formula for caffeine is C8H10N4O2, in case you were wondering. Runge isolated it at the request of writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe after showing he could successfully dilate cats' eyes with toxic atropine. Not sure of the significance—you can get the same effect with a crinkle ball. Anyway, Goethe then gave Runge some coffee beans, believing there was something special about them, earning him the nickname, “Captain Obvious.”

Following his discovery of caffeine, Runge would live out his days as a bachelor, buried in his work. Though not coffee related, his life's later laurels include inventing stain removers, isolating quinine, making fruit wines, canning, and being the life of his dinner parties.

Without Runge, a great deal of us would never be able to put our love of coffee into scientific terms (i.e., not just saying, “mmm,” “yummy,” and “oooooh”). Runge essentially laid the groundwork for coffee talk. That might be a stretch, but if we didn't start bringing terms like “caffeine” into the mix, I'm not sure where we'd be.

Regardless, happy birthday, Friedlieb! 229 looks good on you.

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