The application of technology to assist the art of making a good cup of coffee began in the nineteenth century with the invention of the percolator by the American-born Count Rumford in Germany in 1806, with at least one aim being to discourage the heavy drinking of Munich workmen. His invention improved upon the traditional Turkish method of heating both ground beans and water in the same container. Water trickled down through a central cylinder that contained the coffee and filter and then up into the outer body of the vessel. The other long-favored method was the tinplate or enamel “drip-pot” that simply filtered the hot water from an upper vessel, through the ground coffee and into a lower one.

By the mid-1830s the first true coffee machines, large alcohol-heated drip machines, had been developed, primarily for cafés. Steam pressure was popular for smaller domestic models, especially in Italy. Simple steam-pressure machines featured a water container with a filter for the ground coffee. A metal tube dipped into the water, and as it heated, the pressure of the resulting steam forced the water through the coffee and out of the tube. Italian companies like Pavoni and Snider produced a variety of these models in the early twentieth century. Later models were electrically heated.

Coffee was a popular drink in Europe and America, and it was here that the major developments took place. The earliest electric appliances were percolators (the first introduced in 1908 by Landers, Frary & Clark under their Universal trade name) with a heating element attached to the base. Two types of vacuum coffeemakers were developed in Britain. The Siphon percolator of the 1850s used the principle of the vacuum siphon patented by Robert Napier in 1830. The apparatus consisted of two flasks linked by a pipe. Boiling water was poured onto ground coffee in a glass flask. The steam generated by hot water in another flask, usually of china, created a vacuum that drew the liquid coffee through. It was then served from a tap on the side. Another nonelectric solution was the Cona vacuum system developed by Alfred Cohn in London in 1910. It consisted of two glass vessels. The bottom one held the water and was connected to the top one, which held the ground coffee. Once heated the water rose into the top to infuse the coffee, while the cooling lower half created a partial vacuum, which drew the liquid coffee back down. The Cona remains popular today. The Danish Bodum company introduced their version, the Santos, designed by the architect Kaas Klaeson, in 1958 and it is also still in production.

The United States and Germany, both coffee-drinking nations, continued to develop electric models that were effectively percolators with electric heating elements in the base. AEG produced an electric siphon model during the 1920s. West Bend developed the Flavo-Drip coffeemaker that did not require a filter in 1922. Its popularity led to a stove-top percolator called the Flavo-Perk. The popular American Silex of the 1930s was a glass, two-bowl drip model that sat on a separate electric burner. Like kettles of the period, few were automatic. In 1937, S.W. Farber introduced the Coffee Robot that proclaimed to “do about everything but buy the coffee.” It was a vacuum type with an automatic shut-off and a thermostat to keep the coffee warm. Its success tempted other American appliance manufacturers into the market.

The postwar trend in the United States was for sleeker all in one, automatic electric coffeemakers. Glass was replaced by chrome bodies with Bakelite handles. Many had simple engraved patterns on their sides. Popular models included the Sunbeam vacuum Coffeemaster and the Universal Coffeematic percolator.

Meanwhile, Italy produced more important developments, both in 1933. Alfonso Bialetti designed and produced the Moka Express, a two-part machine that forced the heated water up through the coffee into the upper vessel. Made of cast aluminum, it is still popular today, and it still carries the distinctive trademark of the cartoon caricature of its inventor. If the Moka was uncomplicated, the cafetiere designed by fellow Italian Calimani was simplicity itself. Its now familiar form is that of a glass vessel with a plunge filter that is pushed down through the infusing coffee. It began to be used in French cafés after 1945 and became popular in the 1950s. The cafetiere is now ubiquitous on both sides of the Atlantic.

Italy was also the birthplace of espresso, a coffee produced through pressurized machines based on the 1901 patent of the Milanese engineer Luigi Bezzera. The main drawback of these machines was that the steam was forced through the coffee at a relatively slow rate, resulting in a bitter flavor. A Milanese man, Cremonesi, experimented with a piston mechanism to increase the pressure. He fitted it to the machine in Achille Gaggia’s bar in Milan. The piston method of forcing water through a bed of coffee at high pressure resulted in a fresher cup of coffee with a creamy head or crema. Cremonesi died during World War II, and Gaggia went on to develop the idea, with the Gaggia machine going into production in 1948. This machine was synonymous with the rise of coffee bars in Europe and America during the postwar period and stimulated the desire for authentic espresso at home. Gaggia produced the first domestic electric espresso machine in 1952. It was named Gilda, after the film that starred Rita Heyworth. A further improvement was the pump system developed by the Faema Company of Milan in the 1950s. A pump forced the water directly through the coffee at a constant temperature of 200°F. This method produced espresso very quickly and was adopted as the preferred method for domestic machines.

During the 1960s and 1970s these European methods began to make headway in the United States and Britain. Fresh filtered coffee was simple to make, and there was less chance of overheating it, which could happen with percolators. Manufacturers like Braun, Philips, and Rowenta produced well-designed automatic filter coffeemakers with plastic cases. The cafetiere was also successfully marketed by Bodum, which introduced their Bistro cafetiere in 1974, beginning their successful Presso line. Coffee was now one of the world’s favorite beverages, although it must be remembered that the majority of sales were for the instant granulated variety. Instant coffee was the result of eight years research by the Swiss Nestlé Company and was introduced in 1938. The coffee was freeze-dried to eliminate the water but leave the oils that gave the taste. By the mid-1990s, it accounted for 90 percent of all coffee drunk in the United Kingdom, over 70 million cups a day.

Nevertheless, the 1980s saw the manufacturers respond to an increasingly sophisticated market. The domestic espresso machine came of age with sleek matt black miniatures from the likes of Braun, Bosch, Gaggia, Krups, and Siemens, fully equipped with steam pipes to froth up milk for cappuccinos. Initially expensive, these models forced the water through the coffee with either an electric pump or a centrifugal system that spins the water at high speed. In the early 1990s Russell Hobbs, Tefal, and Krups produced combination machines featuring an espresso maker, milk frother, and filter coffeemaker.

As the kitchen had become both a stylish room and a workspace, the coffeemaker, like the kettle has not escaped the attentions of contemporary designers, especially those working for Alessi. Aldo Rossi produced an espresso maker and a cafetiere, Richard Sapper an espresso maker, and Michael Graves a cafetiere.

Coffee remains popular throughout the world and the public taste for distinctive coffee has been stimulated by the growth of specialist coffee shops and cafés. Such is the market that brands like Starbucks are becoming global. In this environment appliances that replicate the coffee shop taste remain in demand.