History of Coffee: 10 Ways that Engineering Brings You Your Morning Brew

We take a look at different coffee machines created throughout the ages.
Chris Young
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Coffee can be as simple as heating up a pot, and can be as complex as building a specially built machine to make coffee brewing possible in the zero-gravity of space. People will go to great lengths to make machines that make the perfect morning brew.

Here is a short history of some of the contraptions engineered expressly for brewing that perfect cup of coffee.

1. The beginnings of coffee brewing

The origin of coffee consumption is thought to be in Ethiopia, where tribespeople would use the energizing properties of coffee plants to aid them on long hunts.

The first substantiated historical evidence of coffee drinking, however, traces the practice back to the Sufi monasteries of Yemen — Mocha in Yemen, became the center of the coffee trade for much of the early modern era.

History of Coffee: 10 Ways that Engineering Brings You Your Morning Brew
The Turkish Ibrik method of making coffee, Source: Eaeeae/Wikimedia Commons

Amongst the earliest methods for brewing coffee was the Ibrik method. As HistoryCooperative.org describes, the method gets its name from the small Ibrik pot used to brew a traditional Turkish coffee.

The small metal contraption was designed with a long handle to make it easier to serve. Coffee grounds, sugar, spices, and water are all mixed together before brewing.

Coffee consumption was so prominent in Turkey in the early modern period, that the practice is thought to have been introduced to Europe via Muslim Turkish slaves in Malta.  

2. Infusion brewing and coffee filters

Infusion brewing, or coffee filters, are believed to have been derived from the common sock. Historians believe that people would pour coffee grounds into a sock before pouring coffee into it, making the sock act as a filter. 

Though sock and cloth filters were less efficient than paper filters, these weren't created until about 200 years after the first cloth filters were seen in Europe. 

In 1780, the Mr. Biggin coffee filter was released. It was designed with a more efficient drainage system and was an improvement over the cloth filter.

3. Vacuum brewers

A vacuum coffee brewer, or siphon, makes coffee using two chambers. The contraption uses vapor pressure and gravity to brew coffee.

The vacuum brewer's unique design slightly resembles an hourglass with its two glass domes. The heat source from the bottom dome causes a build-up of pressure that forces water through the siphon, making it mix with the ground coffee.

The first vacuum brewer patent dates back to 1830 and was invented by Loeff of Berlin.  

4. A revolution in coffee making: the espresso machine

The first espresso machine was patented by an Angelo Moriondo in Turin, Italy in 1884. Today, every hipster coffee joint and local restaurant has one.

Moriondo's device used water and pressurized steam to make an intense cup of coffee very quickly. Though today we associate espresso machines with small individual cups of coffee, Moriondo's machine was originally designed to brew coffee in bulk amounts.

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History of Coffee: 10 Ways that Engineering Brings You Your Morning Brew
The patent for the very first espresso machine, Source: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

As The Smithsonian Magazine points out, Moriondo's espresso machine consisted of a large boiler, which would heat to 1.5 bars of pressure. It would push water through a large container of coffee grounds, while a second boiler would produce steam to flash the coffee and finish the brew.

Within a few years of Moriondo's original patent Luigi Bezzera and Desiderio Pavoni, both from Milan, Italy, improved and commercialized the idea of the espresso machine. Unlike Moriondo's idea, their machine could brew a single cup of coffee, or an 'espresso.'

Bezzera and Pavoni unveiled their machine at the 1906 Milan Fair. Though it is much more like the modern espresso machine we know today, the fact that it was steam-powered means that the coffee came out with a slightly different, more bitter, taste than we are used to today.

4. More innovations in espresso machines

Another man from Milan, Italy, is largely credited as the father of the modern espresso machine. Achille Gaggia created a machine that used a lever, much like the machines that you'll find today in your local coffee joint.

Aside from standardizing the size of a cup of espresso, the new update on the espresso machine increased water pressure from 2 bars to 8-10 bars, revolutionizing the way espressos are made today.

History of Coffee: 10 Ways that Engineering Brings You Your Morning Brew
Source: Blake Richard Verdoorn/Unsplash

Today, according to the Italian Espresso National Institute, for coffee to qualify as an espresso, it must be made with a minimum of 8 bars. This makes for a much smoother and richer cup of espresso.

6. Coffee percolators

The coffee percolator was invented in the 19th century. Though its origins are uncertain, the prototype of the coffee percolator was created by the American-British physicist, Sir Benjamin Thompson.

The modern U.S. percolator, meanwhile, is credited to Hanson Goodrich, an Illinois man who patented his version in 1889.

A coffee percolator has steam pressure build-up when water in a bottom chamber boils. The water rises through the pot and over the coffee grounds, making a fresh brew of coffee.

7. The Moka Pot

The Moka pot is an Italian invention that is similar to the percolator and many also believe to have been inspired by the vacuum brewer. Legend, however, also says it was inspired by a steam-powered laundry machine of the time.

Italian metal-worker Alfonso Bialetti and inventor Luigi di Ponti teamed up in 1933 to bring the espresso to the average Italian's home.

History of Coffee: 10 Ways that Engineering Brings You Your Morning Brew
Source: Unsplash

Named after the Yemeni city of Mocha, the center of the early coffee trade, the Moka pot is an iconic Italian design that is widely used throughout Europe. Though its popularity may have been hit by the invention of instant coffee machines.

As the Moka pot builds up pressure by having water boil and rise up a tube into a compressed coffee chamber, it is perhaps the most similar coffee we can get to an espresso at home.

It is credited with democratizing a style of coffee that was previously tied to restaurants. While the coffee produced is not exactly the same as an espresso, people no longer needed large espresso machines to make something that was close.

8. The French press

Though it's called the French Press, both the French and the Italians lay claim to this invention. The first French Press patent was made in 1852 by Frenchmen Mayer and Delforge. However, a French Press design that more closely resembles the one commonly used today was patented in 1928 by Italians Attilio Calimani and Giulio Moneta.

The commonly used French Press of today, called the Chambord, was patented by a Swiss-Italian man named Faliero Bondanini in 1958.

History of Coffee: 10 Ways that Engineering Brings You Your Morning Brew
Source: Rachel Brenner/Unpslash

The French Press uses the old method of decoction — mixing hot water with coarsely ground coffee. After the coffee soaks in the water for a few minutes, a metal plunger is used to separate the coffee grounds from the coffee-infused water. The method is still popular today, thanks largely to its ease of use. 

9. Drip coffeemakers

Largely associated with American diners, the first drip coffee machine was actually invented in Germany in 1954 by a Mr. Gottlob Widmann.

It never became as widely used as other popular methods in Europe, such as the espresso and Moka pot. However, in the U.S. where it was more difficult to import specially made Italian espresso machines, drip coffee became prominent.

Drip coffee makers use a paper filter that allows boiling water to slowly drip through — hence the name — leaving the coffee in a bowl under the filter.

10. ISSpresso: coffee in space

We've had plants grown aboard the International Space Station (ISS), but has coffee bean brewed high up above Earth's atmosphere? The answer to that, thankfully — for all future astronauts — is yes.

ISSpresso is the first espresso coffee machine designed for use in space. Little would Angel Moriondo know when he filed his patent for the first espresso machine that it would become so indispensable that future space travelers couldn't do without one.

History of Coffee: 10 Ways that Engineering Brings You Your Morning Brew
ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti was the first person to drink an espresso in space, Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The ISSpresso machine was produced for the ISS by Argotec and Lavazza in a collaboration with the Italian Space Agency (ASI). It was installed in 2015, and the first space espresso was drunk by European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on May 3, 2015.

According to Lavazza's website, the ISSpresso machine had to be specially made due to the different conditions in space, where "the principles of fluid dynamics are completely different from on Earth."

The cream and coffee are not mixed as on Earth but are separated. A traditional cup is replaced by a pouch that prevents the coffee from turning into small droplets and floating around in zero gravity. Aside from that, the preparation process is largely the same. Astronauts drink their coffee out of a straw.

Whether it's in space or on Earth, there's no doubt that human beings have gone a long way to engineer the perfect contraption to get that morning buzz.

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