Chocolate and the Steam Engine

It is no secret that the Industrial Revolution allowed chocolate to become available to the masses. At the dawn of this period, basic technology used to create chocolate had barely changed from that used by the Aztecs, and even factories that produced chocolate did so through a labor-intensive process performed by hand in small quantities (Coe and Coe 226). As a result, its price was prohibitive and chocolate remained a drink only consumed by wealthy and aristocratic Europeans during the 17th and 18th century. Coe and Coe note that “1828 marks the beginning of the modern era in chocolate making and production,” crediting Coenraad Johannes Van Houten’s hydraulic press for allowing the widespread manufacture of affordable chocolate for the masses to be possible (234). This hydraulic press manufactured a cheap powdered cocoa by squeezing out excess cocoa butter and treating it with alkaline salts.

However, I would argue that the democratizing of chocolate actually began fifty years before, in 1775. In that year, James Watt, a Scottish inventor, entered into a partnership with businessman Matthew Boulton, which sparked the successful commercialization of Watt’s steam engine (Scherer 167). While one may not immediately associate steam engines and chocolate with each other, I believe it was indeed the steam engine that served as the catalyst for the spread of chocolate consumption, and its importance surely should not be overlooked. The steam engine was crucial in mechanizing the process of grinding cacao seeds to produce chocolate. Before the steam engine, cacao seeds were ground in mills driven by animal, wind, or water power, and before that they were ground by hand with stones. The power supplied by the steam engine enabled chocolate makers to streamline chocolate production in larger quantities. In 1789, Joseph Storrs Fry purchased a Watt’s steam engine to grind his cacao beans, thus sparking the process in which chocolate became widely affordable (Coe and Coe 227). Thus, it would be safe to say that the steam engine provided the platform in which Van Houten’s breakthrough was able to spark this “modern era” of chocolate proliferation.

A James Watt steam engine just like this one would’ve been used to grind cacao seeds in a timely and efficient manner.

Additionally, it is impossible to talk about the spread of chocolate to the masses without detailing the equally enormous increase in the intake of sugar during the same period, as the majority of these new solid chocolate snacks were in the form of desserts. Once again, the steam engine played a crucial role in the spread of sugar in a similar fashion. The first attempt at applying steam power to sugar production was made by John Stewart in 1768 in Jamaica, and soon after, steam replaced direct firing as the source of sugar heat processing (Richardson 88). By 1810, steam power was heavily present throughout the British and French Caribbean colonies, and the continually advancing steam-powered method of sugarcane milling made steady progress against the older methods throughout the region during the nineteenth century, particularly in the Great Antilles (Richardson 92). Not only did the steam engine remove the need for cattle-driven mills, but it could also crush canes endlessly with perfect reliability, regardless of wind conditions or terrain. This industrialization of sugar processing through steam power contributed to the plummeting in prices of sugar during the 1800’s, which in turn also contributed to the cheapening of chocolate.

Sugar cane mills were used to manufacture sugar for processes varying from squeezing juice out from the cane, boiling and filtering the juice, and further separation and purification techniques to process the final sugar crystal product.

From sugar mills to textile factories, steam engines found many uses in a variety of fields during the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of steam engines improved productivity and technology and they were eventually applied to transportation as well. Steam engines found their way into boats, railways, and road vehicles, driving transportation costs down and contributing to a chain reaction which in turn drove sugar, and therefore chocolate prices down. In 1825, George Stephenson created the first public railway for steam locomotives, which coincided with the other inventions occurring regarding the production process of chocolate and allowed this newfound mass-produced chocolate to be transported on a widespread level as well (Scherer 176).

The design of George Stephenson’s patent locomotive engine, built in 1829, was used in successive locomotive steam engines throughout the 1800’s.

The introduction of the steam engine provides an example of how changes brought by industrialization led to even more changes in other areas. The steam engine was a precursor to many other advanced technologies, including Henri Nestle’s production of powdered milk in 1867 and  Rudolphe Lindt’s “conching” process in 1879 (Coe and Coe 246). Thus, the steam engine served as the catalyst to making all the steps of the production of chocolate, from its initial grinding to its final transportation, easier and cheaper. Today, sales reach over $100 billion a year and  chocolate is considered a snack for the masses. When considering how chocolate achieved such an extensive reach, it is important to consider the integral role that the steam engine played in its expansion.

Coe, Sophie D., Coe, Michael D., 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, London.

Richardson, Bonham (1992). The Caribbean in the Wider World, 1492-1992: A Regional Geography. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Scherer, F.M., (1965). Invention and Innovation in the Watt-Boulton Steam-Engine Venture. Technology and Culture, Vol. 6, No. 2.

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