I was recently reading that the World Health Organisation has decided that aspartame was possibly carcinogenic, which was surprising–the timing, not the news, as I heard about that years ago. To make it relatable for the consumer, the news outlet explained that this softener was used in drinks like Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. I remembered watching a mini-doc about the history of those brands and, instead of finding it again, I stumbled onto this history of soda.
What Was The First Soda?
When I say soda, it’s the word I use. Apparently, we are talking about “soft drinks” here. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a soft drink is:
“any of a class of nonalcoholic beverages, usually but not necessarily carbonated, normally containing a natural or artificial sweetening agent, edible acids, natural or artificial flavours, and sometimes juice.”
The story of soda began in 1767 when an Englishman named Dr. Joseph Priestley created the first drinkable glass of carbonated water. Three years later, Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman invented a generating apparatus capable of producing carbonated water on a larger scale using sulfuric acid and chalk, thereby paving the way for the mass production of imitation mineral water.
In the 1770s, an apothecary from Manchester named Thomas Henry became the first person to sell artificial mineral water to the general public, for medicinal purposes. His product, known as “Bewley’s Mephitic Julep,” consisted of fossil alkali mixed with water. Henry’s method involved saturating the water with fixed air (carbon dioxide) until the alkaline taste was eliminated.
This practice of adding flavorings and medicinal substances to carbonated water gained traction among pharmacists, who saw it as a way to enhance the health benefits of the beverage.
Meanwhile, in 1783, Johann Jacob Schweppe established the Schweppes Company in Geneva, Switzerland, to manufacture and sell carbonated water. The popularity of his soda grew rapidly, and the company relocated to London in 1792. Schweppe’s success attracted notable patrons, including Erasmus Darwin, and in 1843, the company received a royal warrant from King William IV after commercializing Malvern Water from the Holywell Spring in the Malvern Hills.
As the practice of adding flavors to carbonated water gained momentum, the range of options expanded. The earliest reference to carbonated ginger beer can be found in a brewing treatise published in 1809. During this period, drinking both natural and artificial mineral water was considered a healthy habit, and it was endorsed by temperance advocates.
Pharmacists selling mineral waters began incorporating various herbs, chemicals, and extracts to enhance the taste and perceived health benefits. Birch bark, dandelion, sarsaparilla root, and fruit extracts were among the substances used to create a diverse array of flavored carbonated beverages, paving the way for the vast assortment of soda flavors available today.
The Creation of Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and more
In 1835, the first bottled soda water is sold in the U.S. and, in 1892, a Baltimore machine shop operator named William Painter patented the “Crown Cork Bottle Seal,” a highly successful method of preserving carbonation within the bottle. Then, in 1899, the first patent for a glass-blowing machine capable of automatically producing glass bottles developed by inventor Michael J. Owens was issued. This changed the way soft drinks were consumed and explained how soda became ubiquitous.
People could buy a bottle of Schweppes to drink at home, but not only this brand as others came along. Vernor’s Ginger Ale was invented by Detroit pharmacist James Vernor in 1866. Maybe not “invented” as he found that the tonic he forgot in a barrel was pretty good when he came back from fighting the Civil War.
The history of the invention Hires’ Root Beer by Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires seems to have been rewritten a lot. Though, it is known that it was first sold in 1876. Initially as a powder, then as a liquid extract for use in soda fountains in 1884. The bottle version came in 1890.
As for the major brands, Dr Pepper first appeared in 1885 in Waco, Texas. It was created by a young pharmacist named Charles Alderton who named his product in honor of his friend, Dr. Charles Pepper. The following year, Coca-Cola was invented in Atlanta, Georgia by Dr. John S. Pemberton. As for Pepsi-Cola, it was invented by Caleb Bradham in 1898. And finally, the 7 Up Lithiated Lemon-Lime, or just 7 Up, was introduced in 1929 by Charles Leiper Grigg.
The Launch of the Diet Cola
Finally, because we started with that, let’s finish with the first diet soft drink. It was called the No-Cal Beverage by Hyman and Morris Kirsch of Kirsch Beverages and appeared on the shelves in 1952 in the U.S. but the first in the world was launched in Spain in 1949–it was called La Casera. Then, Canada Dry launched the Canada Dry Glamor in 1954.
In 1963, Dr. Pepper, Cocal-Cola, and Pepsi launched respectively Dietetic Dr. Pepper, Tap, and Patio Diet Cola.
If you want some more refreshments this summer, you may want to read my article about the invention of Ice Cream! (or the one about the air conditioner) You don’t need it to open your can of soda, but you may be interested in the history of the can opener.