German jeweler establishes world's first soft drink factory in London
JOHANN JACOB SCHWEPPE (1740-1820)
Johann Jacob Schweppe was born as the son of Conrad Schweppe in 1740 in the Hessische Witzenhausen, east of Kassel. According to a plebiscite, the town had 1,460 inhabitants at the time. Four families were named Schweppe. Witzenhausen is today a town of 20,000 inhabitants with many old buildings, some of which date back to the 16th century. There in the Liebfrauenkirche Jacob Schweppe was baptized on March 16, 1740. His parents thought he was too weak for farm work and gave him to a traveling tinker at the age of eleven. He was amazed at how quickly the boy mastered repairing kettles and pans. He took him back to his parents and said it was a shame to let the boy work below his level. He advised them to apprentice him to a silversmith. No sooner said than done. The silversmith was equally amazed by the boy's talent and found that he could handle more difficult work, at a jeweler for example. And here too the young Jacob achieved success.
Jewelery eventually led him to Geneva, proud of its cosmopolitan spirit and also a center for the manufacture of watches, jewelery and precision instruments two hundred years ago. His residence is established from the end of 1765, when he was 25.
His name also appears in the Geneva annals on the occasion of his marriage to Eléonore Roget on October 4, 1767. On September 19, 1768, he was formally recognized as a resident of Geneva, the first step towards citizenship of the city.
He was probably employed by the jeweler Jean Louis Dunant. In May 1777, together with his son, he opened a jewelery shop under the name 'Dunant & Schweppe'.
Young Dunant, in poor health, provided the capital and Schweppe ran the business. Three months later, the Geneva jewelers' guild registered him as a maître bijoutier.
His chef d'oeuvre was a nécessaire, a travel box, which was praised by the guild presidents for its special qualities. In 1786 Dunant and Schweppe dissolved the company.
It must have prospered for Jacob as evidenced by the 1783 purchase of a country house in Bouchet, a hamlet in the Petit-Saconnex district on the outskirts of the city. The house is still there.
Jacob and his wife Eléonore had nine children, eight of whom died in infancy. Only one child survived, their daughter Nicolarde, nicknamed Colette.
Jacob described himself as an avid amateur scientist.
While he made his living selling precious stones and making expensive trinkets, he amused himself with scientific studies and experiments that he could read about in the scientific journals of the day.
He was aware of the discovery of carbonic acid by the English scholar Joseph Priestley in 1772. It was also Priestley who established that carbonic acid was soluble in water and that this had a refreshing effect on the drink.
He suggested that with the help of a compression pump, the qualities of mineral water could be added to ordinary water.
Schweppe repeated Priestley's experiments from 1780, but concluded that the laboratory products could in no way match the quality of nature.
For years he tinkered with the compression pump suggested by Priestley. After all, he had made a better pump than anyone else
other for him, though he himself was not yet satisfied. Thinking it would be a shame to throw away the water he produced for the time being, he offered to give it to local doctors for free to poor patients. Soon he reached the desired level.
Demand for Schweppe water increased, including from wealthy people willing to pay for it. Finally, he was forced to ask for a small fee.
In this way he switched almost imperceptibly from the experimental to the commercial stage around 1783. Thus, Jacob Schweppe became the founder of the soft drink industry as we know it today.
He was the first to develop a device with which he could saturate water with carbon dioxide on a large scale, in such a way that it contained as much or more carbon dioxide than the natural spring water.
After the initial success, Schweppe hired a salesman to whom he entrusted the secrets of the process. The man ran off with the secrets with the intention of starting a company himself.
To assist him technically, the thief called on one of the city's best-known technicians, 27-year-old Nicolas Paul.
Paul made a flawed device for Schweppe's treacherous employee and a very precise one for himself and announced that he would be marketing artificial mineral water. Schweppe was forced to enter into a partnership with Paul.
He then called in his friend and pharmacist Henry Albert Gosse, who himself had already experimented with water and gases. The partnership was established with effect from 1 July 1790 for a term of nine years.
The three men – with Schweppe as the original inventor, Paul as the technician and Gosse as the chemist – managed to replicate a whole range of existing spring waters such as Seltzer and Spa in a short time.
They only worked on the basis of distilled water, so that their products attracted attention mainly in the medical field.
Business flourished. They came up with the idea – perhaps because of the many English in Geneva – to open a branch in London. Gosse didn't want to leave his pharmacy, young Nicolas Paul had already broken up with a project in London, so Schweppe had to go.
But he too hesitated. He probably had a hard time leaving the case he'd worked on for ten years in the hands of newcomers. Moreover, things did not go well between the three men.
The fact that he had to miss his wife and child indefinitely may also have played a role. Two years earlier, when she was 12, his daughter Colette had already caused a huge scandal in the city by running off with her harp teacher. They were discovered in a neighboring town.
Colette was returned home and the young teacher was convicted in absentia for kidnapping a child. Finally, 51-year-old Schweppe left at the end of December 1791, in the middle of winter. He was well aware of the importance of his invention.
To mislead curious strangers along the way, he added all kinds of superfluous accessories to the carbon dioxide-generating installation.
On January 9, 1792, Schweppe arrived in England. He set up the first factory at 141 Drury Lane, one of the poorest areas of London. At that time, a whole series of artificial mineral waters circulated in the English capital, produced with the rudimentary machines that Schweppe had rejected in 1780 as inadequate. Because his water as such was not new, he had to wait a long time for recognition for his superior product, especially from the medical field. Schweppe was disappointed, his health was struggling and he was lonely. In July, he wrote a letter home requesting that his daughter Colette come over.
Colette Schweppe, then only 15 years old, traveled straight through the tumult of the French Revolution to London. But on December 21, he received a letter from his partners requesting that he return.
Firstly, because their product was unsuccessful, secondly, because the ideas of the French Revolution caused unrest in Geneva, and thirdly, because business was not going well in Geneva.
Schweppe was furious. He asked if they thought he was an imbecile, an easy plaything for their whims.
He refused to expose his daughter's health to a winter trip and said he was no longer interested in working with people who had so little faith in him. On February 1, 1793, the French revolutionaries declared war on Great Britain.
Fearing being deported, Schweppe wrote the British government a letter underlining that his firm could one day be of great use to the country. The ties with his partners were permanently severed.
They were given the Geneva business as a gift, with which he actually donated ten years of hard work, and he kept the firm in London. Schweppe was apparently confident.
Its mineral waters, in countless varieties and with varying levels of carbonation, became known. He was supported by a number of great scientists, including doctor Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, who praised the special mineral water in his writings.
Darwin was the hub of a circle of philosophers and inventors in Birmingham that included Josiah Wedgwood, the renowned potter, and Matthew Boulton, the manufacturer of Watt's steam engines. Boulton would source directly from Schweppe mineral water throughout his life.
Medical works touted certain Schweppe mineral waters for people with kidney or biliary complaints, stones on the kidneys, heartburn, indigestion and even gout. It could also serve to dilute rum or brandy. The counterfeit Seltzer was recommended for its pleasant taste as well as for its medical effects.
For example, for feverish ailments, biliousness, nervous disorders and exhaustion after hard work.
It was described as a safe and refreshing drink for 'persons who are exhausted after long speaking, overheated from dancing or when leaving hot rooms or crowded meetings'.
Within a few months, Schweppe's waters were spread all over Great Britain.
Back in Geneva
His wife Eléonore died in Geneva in April 1796. Neither Jacob nor Colette were able to make the crossing because of the war. In March 1798, French troops invaded Geneva. It's unclear how those events affected Schweppe.
In any event, in 1798, six years after his arrival, he sold his firm to three men from the island of Jersey. He had saved £1200, a fortune in those days.
He and Colette together held a quarter of the shares.
In his travel passport in 1798, aged 58, Jacob was described as follows: 1.58 meters tall, gray hair and partly bald, with gray eyes, a large nose, an ordinary mouth with the lower lip protruding slightly, a long face with high forehead, full jaws and a pointed chin.
Colette was 21 at the time and, according to her passport, short and fat. She had a healthy color, hair and eyebrows were chestnut brown and she had black eyes. Like her father, she had a big nose, a regular mouth, and a pointed chin; she did have a round face and a normal forehead.
It was not until 1804 that Jacob Schweppe reappeared on a resident list of Petit-Saconnex near Geneva. In 1806 he was present when his daughter Colette married a merchant from Lyon. In 1814 Jacob and Colette applied for a passport to travel to Rotterdam.
They traveled for two years. According to the annals of the Schweppes firm, they visited not only London but also Jacob's hometown of Witzenhausen. The old boss had now turned 75.
In June 1816 he was apparently home again. A visitor wrote of him: 'I find Mr. Schweppe himself much more interesting than his renowned peach trees; his advanced age and gray hair contrast sharply with his liveliness and energy.
He has an originality in expression and fervor that characterizes a genius.' Colette still played the harp, according to testimonies from that time.
Shortly before his death in 1821, a learned neighbor wrote in a letter to a friend: 'Mr. Schweppe has occupied and amused himself with agriculture, gardening and engineering, displaying the same originality and talents as in his youth.
At 80, his energy is still so great that he has completely put aside a planetarium he's been working on for a long time because one or two parts didn't work as quietly as he would have liked.
In twelve months he has made a completely new example whose mechanical sounds no longer get on his nerves. His health is not the best after he recently had a stroke.
He is a learned man, but he is so humble and lives so withdrawn and his character so simple that only the neighbors or people who meet him by chance know of his merits or even his existence.' Jacob Schweppe died in November 1821, aged 81.
In 1824 Colette's husband sold the last shares in the London firm. Colette also died in 1836. In the same year, the Schweppes firm in London was granted the status of purveyor to the royal household. To this day, every British king or queen has extended that status.
At the first world exhibition in history, in London's Crystal Palace in 1851, the firm had a prominent presence with a centrally arranged giant fountain. Today, all Schweppes product bottle caps bear a fountain as a symbol.
The Indian tonic (literally: tonic from India), is the most famous Schweppes product and dates back to 1870. The British officers in the Indies used quinine for fever and dispelled its bitter taste with lemons, limes and gin. They wanted to continue drinking the refreshing drink after their return. With its Indian tonic, the Schweppes company, like other soft drink companies, met the demand of the former colonials. Indian tonic remained a quintessentially British drink for nearly eighty years. Its worldwide distribution only started in 1953, after Schweppes allowed bottling in other countries under a system of franchising. Schweppes attributes the success of its own version to the art of extracting special flavors from citrus fruits.
Schweppes merged with British confectionery giant Cadbury in 1969. In 1999, Schweppes sold it to Coca Cola for 155 countries, but not for the US and the European Union. In September 2001, Cadbury in turn bought the French company Orangina.