Big Think Interview With Bjarne Stroustrup
Bjarne Stroustrup is a computer programmer most famous for having designed and implemented the computer programming language C++, one of the most widely used programming languages in the world. His book "The C++ Programming Language" is the most widely read book of its kind and has been translated into at least 19 languages. In addition to his five books, Stroustrup has published hundreds of academic and popular papers. He currently holds the College of Engineering Chair in Computer Science at Texas A&M University.
Question: What inspired you to create C++?
Bjarne Stroustrup: In the really old days, people had to write their code directly to work on the hardware. They wrote load and store instructions to get stuff in and out of memory and they played about with bits and bytes and stuff. You could do pretty good work with that, but it was very specialized. Then they figured out that you could build languages fit for humans for specific areas. Like they built FORTRAN for engineers and scientists and they built COBALT for businessmen.
And then in the mid-'60s, a bunch of Norwegians, mostly Ole-Johan Dahl and Kristen Nygaard thought why can’t you get a language that sort of is fit for humans for all domains, not just linear algebra and business. And they built something called SIMULA. And that’s where they introduced the class as the thing you have in the program to represent a concept in your application world. So if you are a mathematician, a matrix will become a class, if you are a businessman, a personnel record might become a class, in telecommunications a dial buffer might become a class—you can represent just about anything as a class. And they went a little bit further and represented relationships between classes; any hierarchical relationship could be done as a bunch of classes. So you could say that a fire engine is a kind of a truck which is a kind of a car which is a kind of a vehicle and organize things like that. This became know as object-oriented programming or also in some variance of it as data abstraction.
And my idea was very simple: to take the ideas from SIMULA for general abstraction for the benefit of sort of humans representing things... so humans could get it with low level stuff, which at that time was the best language for that was C, which was done at Bell Labs by Dennis Ritchie. And take those two ideas and bring them together so that you could do high-level abstraction, but efficiently enough and close enough to the hardware for really demanding computing tasks. And that is where I came in. And so C++ has classes like SIMULA but they run as fast as C code, so the combination becomes very useful.
Question: What makes C++ such a widely used language?
Bjarne Stroustrup: If I have to characterize C++’s strength, it comes from the ability to have abstractions and have them so efficient that you can afford it in infrastructure. And you can access hardware directly as you often have to do with operating systems with real time control, little things like cell phones, and so the combination is something that is good for infrastructure in general.
Another aspect that’s necessary for infrastructure is stability. When you build an infrastructure it could be sort of the lowest level of IBM mainframes talking to the hardware for the higher level of software, which is a place they use C++. Or a fuel injector for a large marine diesel engine or a browser, it has to be stable for a decade or so because you can’t afford to fiddle with the stuff all the time. You can’t afford to rewrite it, I mean taking one of those ships into harbor costs a lot of money. And so you need a language that’s not just good at what it’s doing, you have to be able to rely on it being available for decades on a variety of different hardware and to be used by programmers over a decade or two at least. C++ is now about three decades old. And if that’s not the case, you have to rewrite your code all the time. And that happens primarily with experimental languages and with proprietary commercial languages that change to finish... to meet fads.
C++’s problem is the complexity partly, because we haven’t been able to clean it up. There’s still code written in the '80s that are running and people don’t like their running codes to break. It could cost them millions or more.
Question: What is the difference between C and C++?
Bjarne Stroustrup: C has the basic mechanisms for expressing computations. It has iterations, it has data types, it has functions and that’s it. It doesn’t get into the game of expressing abstractions. So if I want a matrix in C, I would have to say, I want an array and then I want a whole bunch of arrays and when I want to get the third element I have to program my way down to the third element of the fourth row or something like that.
In C++ you can define something, call it a matrix, you define a subscript operator. If you don’t want rectangular matrixes you can get pentadiagonal matrices, triangular matrices that’s the kind of stuff that people... the expert in that field are interested in. And you build that set of concepts and then you program it directly. It’s easier to program, it’s easier to debug and sometimes it’s even easier to optimize for performance when you are expressing the notions at the higher level, at the level where an expert in the field operates, rather than trying to have the expert in the field, say the physicist, also be an expert in dealing with the hardware, with the computer. There are fields still where you have to have a physicist and a computer scientist to get the work done, but we would like to minimize those because the skill sets are not the same. So you want to lift from the hardware towards the human level.
Question: Is C obsolete?
Bjarne Stroustrup: This is somewhat controversial. I think it is obsolete. I think the languages should have been merged into one, so that C would have been a subset of C++ instead of nearly a subset of C++. And then people could have used whatever parts of the C++ tool set they needed. As it is now, there are still enough incompatibilities that you have to remember which language you’re writing in, and I don’t think that is necessary. It appears to be a historical necessity, but it is not a technical necessity.
I’ve argued for compatibility, very strong compatibility, all the time. I mean, I started working on C++ three doors down from Dennis Ritchie and we were talking every day. The competition and tension that has been between C and C++ over the decades certainly didn’t come from home.
Dennis Ritchie wrote that first book that Brian Carnahan, now I’ll have dinner with Brian next week. We’re still very good friends as we’ve always been, but sometimes the programmers of the languages don’t quite see it that way. It should have been one language.
Question: What is the future of programming?
Bjarne Stroustrup: There’ll be a unified language, but I’m not talking about programming language. I’m talking more about a unified design style, a unified set of guidelines for how to combine the techniques. I certainly hope that there will not be just one programming language. I don’t think that’s at all likely and I would be sad because we would have lost a lot when we don’t have this tension between the languages that allows us to make progress. I mean, the middle ages may have been very comfortable, but I don’t think I would have wanted to live there. I like the diversity of ideas and the early ideas rubbing up against each other. That’s how we make progress.
Question: Are you a proponent of open source software?
Bjarne Stroustrup: I am generally in favor of open source software with very few, if any, restrictions. So I like the BSD Licenses. I am not anti-commercial. I would not put something into my license that would be a virus against commercial use.
On the other hand, I don’t think that all software can or should be open because there’s a lot of sort of boring stuff that requires a high level of expertise to deal with. I mentioned sort of the firmware layers and hardware and such. There’s very few people that really understand it. You don’t get it maintained by a couple of volunteers because you need maybe five, 10 years experience in a particular field to do anything constructive and there’s lots and lots of software that’s not glamorous, that’s not interesting where you’ll simply not get the strength of the open source movement where you have lots of people, lots of contributions both individuals and organizations. But there’s a lot of software where people just aren't interested. And for that you need something else to keep it going and that’s usually the dollars that people get for doing the hard, sometimes boring, and sometimes advanced stuff. So I think we always will have open source software and some closed.
I guess I should add that C++ is used to both anyways, so. I don’t have a... I don’t have a horse in that race, so I have both.
Question: What are the five most important languages that programmers should know?
Bjarne Stroustrup: First of all, nobody should call themselves a professional if they only knew one language. And five is a good number for languages to know reasonably well. And then you’ll know a bunch, just because you’re interested because you’ve read about them because you’ve wrote a couple of little programs like [...]. But five isn’t a bad number. Some of them book between three and seven.
It would be nice beyond that to know something quite weird outside it just to have an experience, pick one of the functional languages, for instance, that’s good to keep your head spinning a bit when it needs to. I don’t have any favorites in that field. There’s enough of them. And, I don’t know, if you’re interested in high-performance numerical computation, you have to look at one of the languages there, but for most people that’s just esoteric.
Question: What are the most interesting trends in technology?
Bjarne Stroustrup: Many things are interesting these days. The interesting thing for me is the computers they have inside it. And so when you see things, cars driving down there, planes flying and such, you can see them as a distributed computing system with wings or distributed computing system with wheels.
I was over in Germany earlier in the year to speak to the German automotive software conference. And I don’t know much about programming cars, but I got an invitation to go down and see how they programmed the BMWs, which is C++, so that'll be interesting. Not that the other weren’t, but those are cool cars. And I’ve worked with some people up at Lockheed Martin where they build the F-35s, the new fighter planes, which is C++ also. So I get some insight in how things are used.
And so at the bottom of all of this is the technology of the hardware, there’s the technology of the communications stuff between it, networking, and on the hardware side what has happened a lot is the multi-cores. You get concurrent programming both from the physical distribution and for the... what’s under the chip themselves. And this is interesting to me because my PhD topic was distribution and concurrency and such. So I’ve been looking at that. So that’s interesting.
And a lot of the most interesting applications these days fall into that category. Take our cell phones: the last time I looked there are several processes. Take a single... take an SLR camera, it’s got five or six processors in it and the cobble in the lenses, I mean, that's some interesting code there. And so whether you think of that as technology or gadgets. I think of them as a gadget. I mean a cell phone or a new jetliner, they’re gadgets. They are things you program and there’s programs in it, there’s techniques, lots of computers.
What I haven’t talked about much about, and what I don’t think that much about is sort of the web kind of thing and the web business. From my perspective, that’s somebody else’s business except when the scale becomes really huge. So you have things like the Google search engines with C++ and I get interested, they get interested. Facebook has recently turned to C++ because they needed the performance. I guess in some way of saying here’s my contribution to dealing with global warming because if you can double the efficiency of those systems, you don’t need yet another server farm that uses as much energy as a small town.
So my view is that there's software and there’s computers in just about everything and if you look at interesting things, well, you find it.
Question: What is your work setup like?
Bjarne Stroustrup: I travel with a little laptop, the smallest real computer I can get. So the 12-and-something screen and... but a decent processor speed. And where I am, I plug it into a dock and I use two screens and such and then I network to any other resources I want. If at all possible, I would like to make that machine smaller, but... or at least lighter. Larger and lighter would be nice, but I don’t get it and too light if you’re stuck in a sardine-class seat on a plane, you still should be able to open up and write. And you can’t do that with one of those bodybuilder’s editions. So a smaller machine, convenient machine that you can carry with you and plug it into a bigger system network to more resources.
My laptop is a Windows. People always ask that. And they can’t understand why it’s not my Linux. Well, my Linux happens to sit on my desk and it talks to a traditional Unix through it. So I use both on a daily basis. It just happened that it’s easier to carry the Windows books around.
Question: Do you prefer to work at night or during the day?
Bjarne Stroustrup: Real thinking, real work goes on fairly early in the day. And then in the evening, no, not really sort of thought work, not creative work. I can polish stuff. I’m not a night bird like that. I like to think when I’m fresh.
Question: Do you listen to music while writing code?
Bjarne Stroustrup: Quite often, yes. I have a mixture of stuff on the computer; I just plug in the earphones and listen. And there’s a mixture, there’s classical, there’s a bit of rock, there’s a bit of country. It’s quite surprising what I can actually work with and what I can’t because it really does affect it. There’s music that sort of takes over and you think about the music, rather than the code. That’s no good. And then there’s music that you don’t hear... that doesn’t help either. And well, so well I found something that works, probably just for me, but I like some music.
Question: What advice do you have for C++ developers?
Bjarne Stroustrup: Most people don’t use C++ anywhere near as well as it could be used. There are still a lot of people that are trying to use it as a glorified C, or as a slightly mutated Java or SmallTalk, and that’s not the right way of using it. Go back, read one good book and see if you are up to date or if you happen to be stuck in the '80s or '90s. We can do much better. And then, next year, C++ OX will arrive, the next generation of C++ and it’ll support some of the modern programming styles that has been proven useful over the last decade or so—significantly better than C++ 98, which was the previous standard. And so learn a little bit about it, look at what has been done and try to understand why it was done. Things are just about to get much better.
Recorded August 12, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the creator of C++.
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For some reason, the bodies of deceased monks stay "fresh" for a long time.
It's definitely happening, and it's definitely weird. After the apparent death of some monks, their bodies remain in a meditating position without decaying for an extraordinary length of time, often as long as two or three weeks.
Tibetan Buddhists, who view death as a process rather than an event, might assert that the spirit has not yet finished with the physical body. For them, thukdam begins with a "clear light" meditation that allows the mind to gradually unspool, eventually dissipating into a state of universal consciousness no longer attached to the body. Only at that time is the body free to die.
Whether you believe this or not, it is a fascinating phenomenon: the fact remains that their bodies don't decompose like other bodies. (There have been a handful of other unexplained instances of delayed decomposition elsewhere in the world.)
The scientific inquiry into just what is going on with thukdam has attracted the attention and support of the Dalai Lama, the highest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. He has reportedly been looking for scientists to solve the riddle for about 20 years. He is a supporter of science, writing, "Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth."
The most serious study of the phenomenon so far is being undertaken by The Thukdam Project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the founders of the center and has published hundreds of articles about mindfulness.
Davidson first encountered thukdam after his Tibetan monk friend Geshe Lhundub Sopa died, officially on August 28, 2014. Davidson last saw him five days later: "There was absolutely no change. It was really quite remarkable."
The science so far
Credit: GrafiStart / Adobe Stock
The Thukdam Project published its first annual report this winter. It discussed a recent study in which electroencephalograms failed to detect any brain activity in 13 monks who had practiced thukdam and had been dead for at least 26 hours. Davidson was senior author of the study.
While some might be inclined to say, well, that's that, Davidson sees the research as just a first step on a longer road. Philosopher Evan Thompson, who is not involved in The Thukdam Project, tells Tricycle, "If the thinking was that thukdam is something we can measure in the brain, this study suggests that's not the right place to look."
In any event, the question remains: why are these apparently deceased monks so slow to begin decomposition? While environmental factors can slow or speed up the process a bit, usually decomposition begins about four minutes after death and becomes quite obvious over the course of the next day or so.
As the Dalai Lama said:
"What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions."
As thukdam researchers continue to seek a signal of post-mortem consciousness of some sort, it's fair to ask what — and where — consciousness is in the first place. It is a question with which Big Think readers are familiar. We write about new theories all the time: consciousness happens on a quantum level; consciousness is everywhere.
So far, though, says Tibetan medical doctor Tawni Tidwell, also a Thukdam Project member, searches beyond the brain for signs of consciousness have gone nowhere. She is encouraged, however, that a number of Tibetan monks have come to the U.S. for medical knowledge that they can take home. When they arrive back in Tibet, she says, "It's not the Westerners who are doing the measuring and poking and prodding. It's the monastics who trained at Emory."
When Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess, they are using the same principles of physics that gave birth to stars and planets.
- Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the physics principle called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Conservation of angular momentum tells us that when a spinning object changes how its matter is distributed, it changes its rate of spin.
- Conservation of angular momentum links the formation of planets in star-forming clouds to the beauty of a gymnast's spinning dismount from the uneven bars.
It is that time again when we watch in awe as Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess. But as we stare in rapt attention at the speed, grace, and strength they exhibit, it is also a good time to pay attention to how they embody, literally, fundamental principles that shape the entire universe. Yes, I'm talking about physics. On our screens, these athletes are giving us lessons in the principles that giants like Isaac Newton struggled mightily to articulate.
Naturally, there are many Olympic events from which we could learn some basic principles of physics. Swimming shows us hydrodynamic drag. Boxing teaches us about force and impulse. (Ouch!) But today, we will focus on gymnastics and the cosmic importance of the conservation of angular momentum.
The conservation of angular momentum
Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the spins and flips athletes perform as they launch themselves into the air from the vault or uneven bars. These are all examples of rotations — and so much of the structure and history of the universe, from planets to galaxies, comes down to the physics of rotating objects. And so much of the physics of rotating objects comes down to the conservation of angular momentum.
Let's start with the conservation of regular or "linear" momentum. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Way back in the age of Galileo and Newton, physicists came to understand that in the interactions between bodies, the sum of their momentums had to be conserved (which really means "does not change"). This is a familiar idea to anyone who has played billiards: when a moving pool ball strikes a stationary one, the first ball stops while the second scoots away. The total momentum of the system (the mass times velocity of both balls taken together) is conserved, leaving the originally moving ball unmoving and the originally stationary ball carrying all the system's momentum.
Credit: Sergey Nivens and Victoria VIAR PRO via Adobe Stock
Rotating objects also obey a conservation law, but now it is not just the mass of an object that matters. The distribution of mass — that is, where the mass is located relative to the center of the rotation — is also a factor. Conservation of angular momentum tells us that if a spinning object is not subject to any forces, then any changes in how its matter is distributed must lead to a change in its rate of spin. Comparing the conservation of angular momentum to the conservation of linear momentum, the "distribution of mass" is analogous to mass, and the "rate of spin" is analogous to velocity.
There are many places in cosmic physics where this conservation of angular momentum is key. My favorite example is the formation of stars. Every star begins its life as a giant cloud of slowly spinning interstellar gas. The clouds are usually supported against their own gravitational weight by gas pressure, but sometimes a small nudge from, say, a passing supernova blast wave will force the cloud to begin gravitational collapse. As the cloud begins to shrink, the conservation of angular momentum forces the spin rate of material in the cloud to speed up. As material is falling inward, it also rotates around the cloud's center at ever higher rates. Eventually, some of that gas is going so fast that a balance between the gravity of the newly forming star and what is called centrifugal force is achieved. That stuff then stops moving inward and goes into orbit around the young star, forming a disk, some material of which eventually becomes planets. So, the conservation of angular momentum is, literally, why we have planets in the universe!
Gymnastics, a cosmic sport
How does this appear in gymnastics? When athletes hurl themselves into the air to perform a flip, the only force acting on them is gravity. But since gravity only affects their "center of mass," it cannot apply forces in a way that changes the athlete's spin. But the gymnasts can do that for themselves by using the conservation of angular momentum.
By changing how their mass is arranged, gymnasts can change how fast they spin. You can see this in the dismount phase of the uneven bar competitions. When a gymnast comes off the bars and performs a flip by tucking their legs inward, they can quickly increase their rotation rate in midair. The sudden dramatic increase in the speed of their flip is what makes us gasp in astonishment. It is both scary and a beautiful testament to the athletes' ability to intuitively control the physics of their bodies. And it is also the exact same physics that controls the birth of planets.
"As above so below," goes the old saying. You should keep that in mind as you watch the glory that is the Olympics. That is because it is not just athletes that have this intuitive understanding of physics. We all have it, and we use it every day, from walking down the stairs to swinging a hammer. So, it is no exaggeration to claim that the first place we came to understand the deepest principles of physics was not in contemplating the heavens but moving through the world in our own earthbound flesh.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
How the British obsession with tea triggered wars, led to bizarre espionage, and changed the world — many times.
- Today, tea is the single most popular drink worldwide, with a global market that outstrips all the nearest rivals combined.
- The British Empire went to war over tea, ultimately losing its American colonies and twice beating the Chinese in the "Opium Wars."
- The British desire to secure homegrown tea resulted in their sending botanist Robert Fortune on a Hollywood-worthy mission to secure Chinese tea plants and steal horticultural secrets.
After water, tea is the most common drink in the world. It is more popular than coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol combined. 84 percent of Brits enjoy a daily "cuppa," but this is a mere bagatelle against the Turks, who drink on average three to four cups every day. The tea industry is worth $200 billion worldwide and is set to grow by half by 2025.
Tea is such a huge part of many cultures, that it even has origin myths. For instance, one involves the Buddha waking up after falling asleep during his meditation. Disgusted at his lack of self-discipline, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. These lids then grew into tea plants to help future meditators stay awake.
Tea really matters to a lot of people. And, it mattered so much to the British and their empire that it directed their entire foreign policy. It also inspired one of the most incredible and ridiculous tales of 19th century espionage.
A spot of tea
When the European powers of the 16th century first traded with, then militarily colonized, various East Asian nations, it was impossible not to come across tea. Since the 9th century, the Tang Dynasty of China had already popularized tea across the region. Tea was already firmly entrenched when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to sample it (in 1557), followed by the Dutch, who first shipped a batch back to mainland Europe.
Britain was relatively late to the tea party, not arriving until well into the 17th century. In fact, in Samuel Pepys' 1660 diaries, he makes reference to "a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before." It was only after King Charles II's Portuguese wife popularized it at court that tea became a fashionable societal drink.
After the Brits got going, there was no stopping them. Tea became a huge business. However, since tea was monopolized by the East India Company and the government imposed a whopping 120 percent tax on it, an army of smuggler gangs opened back channels to get tea to the poorer masses. Eventually, in 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger got wise to the popular cry for tea. To stamp out the black market, he slashed the tax on the leaf to just 12.5 percent. From then on, tea became the everyman's drink — marketed as medicinal, invigorating, and tasty.
A cup, a cup, my kingdom for a cup!
Tea became so important to the British that it even sparked wars across the empire.
Most famously, when the British imposed a three pennies per pound tax on all tea the East India Company exported to America, it led to the outraged destruction of an entire ship's tea cargo. The "Boston Tea Party" was the first major defiant act of the American colonies and led ultimately to ham-fisted and insensitive countermeasures from the London government. These, in turn, sparked the U.S. War of Independence.
Less well known is how Britain went to war with China over tea. Twice.
Credit: Ingo Doerrie via Unsplash
Back then, tea was only being grown and exported from China to British India and then around the empire. As such, it led to a massive trade imbalance, where the largely self-sufficient China only wanted British silver in return for their famous and delicious homegrown tea leaves. This sort of economic policy, known as mercantilism, made Britain really mad.
In retaliation, Britain grew opium and flooded China with the drug. When China (quite understandably) objected to this, Britain sent in the gunboats. The subsequent "Opium Wars" were only ever going to go one way, and when China sued for peace, they were lumped with $20 million worth of reparations — and had to cede Hong Kong to Britain (which only returned in 1997).
The tea spy: on her majesty's secret service
But even these wars did not resolve the trade deficit with China. The attempts to make tea in British India resulted in insipid rubbish, and the British needed the good stuff. So, they turned to a Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune, whose mission was simple: cross the border into China, integrate himself amongst Chinese tea farmers, and smuggle out both their expertise and preferably their tea plants.
Fortune accepted the mission, even though he could not speak a word of Chinese and had barely left his native Britain. (A forefather of 007 he was not.) But not one to let these details get in the way, he shaved his hair, plaited a pigtail that resembled those worn by the Chinese, and then set off on his adventure.
And what an adventure it was. He came under attack by bandits and brigands, his ship was bombarded by pirates, and he had to endure fever, tropical storms, and typhoons. In spite of all this, Fortune not only managed to learn Chinese and travel around the forbidden City of Suzhou and its surrounding tea-farming land, but he also integrated himself into secluded peasant communities. When the skeptical tea farmers challenged Fortune on why he was so tall, he fooled them by claiming that he was a very important state official — all of whom were tall, apparently.
An Indian speciali-tea
Amazingly, Fortune had good fortune and got away with it. Over the course of his three-year mission, he secreted out several shipments of new tea plants to Britain as well as the art of bonsai (previously, a closely held secret). Most of the smuggled tea leaves died from mold and moisture in transit, but Fortune persisted, and eventually the British began to cultivate their own tea plants using Chinese tea farming techniques in their colonial Indian soils.
It was not long until an Indian variant, almost indistinguishable from the stolen Chinese one, began to dominate the market, not least for Britain's huge and growing empire. Within 20 years of Fortune's remarkable mission, the East India Company had more than fifty contractors pumping out tea worldwide.
Today, things have reverted back. China now produces not only substantially more than India (in second place) but more than the top ten countries combined. In total, 40 percent of the world's tea comes from China. But it was British tea — and Robert Fortune's incredible and unlikely mission — which catalyzed the huge global market. Without this overly confident Scottish plant-lover, the world's love of tea might look very different.