History of the Espresso Machine – Part I

Confusion and error still plague the history of the espresso machine and its inventors. Coffee expert Ian Bersten has gone further than anyone else in getting to the true story in his book ‘Coffee Floats, Tea Sinks’.
We publish the first of a three part piece comprising edited extracts from the chapter entitled: ‘The Espresso Coffee Machine Revolution’.
From the first days of brewing coffee, inventors were confronted with the interplay of grind size, water temperature and brewing time, the interaction of which they never fully understood. These critical factors had to be just right for a complete extraction of the coffee flavour.

Vacuum pump machines and the vacuum pot were early attempts to solve the reluctance of the water to filter through the coffee.
Despite these endeavours to get all the flavour out of the coffee bean, it still held something back. Often the technology lagged behind the ideas of the inventors and there was also a lack of understanding of the coffee making process. For example, the pressure from a boiler was not strong enough to make a complete extraction in a short time. And since the boiling water was never fully expressed from the coffee grounds during the brewing process, steam was used to dry the coffee, by expelling the water from the grounds more quickly, rather than to extract any further flavour. However, for years the inventors believed that passing steam through the coffee was vital for a more complete extraction.
They simply had it wrong, as once the flavour is extracted, steam can extract no more – only bitterness. The pursuit of perfect extraction from the coffee bean was to continue for a long time.

The First Espresso Machine with Water and Steam Control

Italian inventors Luigi Bezzera and Desiderio Pavoni are generally considered to be the inventors of the first espresso machine in the 1920s. However, the actual history is a little less clear-cut. The early machines made long espresso-type coffees, where several cups of water were forced through lightly-compressed coffee. In this sense the product was somewhere between filter coffee and true espresso coffee, but probably closer to the former. Later, espresso machines used pumps and were able to make short, strong espresso coffee, one or two cups at a time.
While the idea of impregnating the coffee with steam before extraction is seen in the 1827 Laurens patent in France, Gustav Kessel a German, has the honour of lodging the first patent (in 1878) for a machine with separate controls to cause the water and then the steam to pass through the coffee, held in a filter holder with a bayonet fitting. For whatever reason – too small or too clumsy or because there was not enough steam pressure to make it work effectively – the machine’s use was not widespread, if in fact it was ever manufactured. Kessel’s was one of several machines using a combination of hot water and steam to make tea and coffee. All these patents are compatible with the idea, expressed in a French patent by Dartois in 1879, that there was a need to use steam to get full extraction…a false notion that held sway for another seventy years.

Beginnings of the Commercial Espresso Machine

Even if an inventor’s name is known, it is very difficult to find any details of a patent in Italy, especially prior to 1900. Sheer luck led to my discovery, while searching through French patents in Paris, of a patent signed by Angelo Moriondo of Turin, lodged on the 23rd October 1885, for a

coffee machine. Moriondo’s machine was a solidly constructed bulk brewer of fifty cups, with a large boiler heated by gas. It was almost certainly the first Italian bar machine that controlled the supply of steam and water separately through the coffee. Without separate controls, the large boiler would almost have had to empty its contents before any steam could be passed through the coffee. Surprisingly, Moriondo has never been mentioned in other historic accounts of the development of the espresso machine but he was deeply involved and is certainly one of the earliest discoverers of the espresso machine, if not the earliest. The Italian patent system is probably responsible for his exclusion from the picture.
Moriondo’s machine was important, not only for itself but because its design could clearly be manufactured. His patent claimed that his machine employed a unique system involving the application and utilisation of steam for instantaneous filtration and economic preparation of coffee. The unique system was really a restatement of earlier ideas that steam was necessary to make a complete extraction, but his machine was the first Italian machine to actually separate the idea of steam and water into distinct functions with a separate supply of steam and hot water. This kind of machine, with its bayonet fitting, could have been a link between Moriondo’s bulk brewer and Luigi Bezzera’s single-cup brewer. The one-cup machine – an espresso machine in name but not in fact.
It was Bezzera who created the ‘one cup at a time’ machine. But why did he want to make one cup at a time? In cafes in Paris, and probably Milan, one of the most popular ways to make coffee at that time was to place a small filter over a cup, producing ‘caffe expres’ – coffee made expressly for the customer. Bezzera’s machine used exactly the same brewing principle as had Moriondo, and even had a similar large-sized boiler, but instead of making large numbers of cups at a time, he used a bayonet fitting of one-cup size. Bezzera lodged his patent on the 19th November 1901, and an amendment including a steam relief valve, on the 17th January 1902, under his name, but which was probably made by Desiderio Pavoni, a friend of his.

What exactly did Luigi Bezzera invent? He did not invent espresso coffee as we know it today. The low pressure in the boiler of three-quarters of an atmosphere was too low for the machine to be anything but a rapid filtering machine. The word ‘espresso’ does not appear in his patent nor does the word ‘cappuccino’. (The word cappuccino possibly derives from the colour of the habits of the Cappuchin monks). What Bezzera did was to combine the idea of a single cup of coffee with an existing machine such as Moriondo’s and he claimed that this was an instantaneous coffee machine. His patent says:
‘The other machines of the day make a large quantity of coffee for example, fifty cups, in such a way that the coffee stays fresh and rich in aroma only for the first cups served immediately after the action of the water and steam, while in the present machine, the coffee is made one cup at a time’ [English translation].

Bezzera’s invention was the handle with the filter in it and the connecting bayonet fitting on the machine for making one cup of coffee at a time – much as we use today. Bezzera’s object was not only to make the coffee faster but also to force the water through the coffee. In doing so, this solved a problem that had existed for decades – if the coffee was ground too finely, the water simply would not filter through at all.
In 1906 an international trade fair was held in Milan, where Bezzera had a large stand and Caffe espresso was offered for the first time, made in the Ideale machine [see next page], which was advertised on a sign on one of the front pillars.

The ‘Ideale’ Machine

Now a new character enters the frame – a man by the name of Desidero Pavoni. Pavoni’s addition to the Bezzera machine was probably the steam relief valve, at least all the evidence points to this being the case. Many people have confused the machines and the achievements of both these men. Even though the steam relief valve appeared in Bezzera’s 1902 addition to his patent under Bezzera’s name, it was almost certainly made by Pavoni, who lodged an identical relief valve drawing in France and Germany, under his name a few months later.
The traditional story is that Bezzera was in financial strife and Pavoni helped him out by buying the patent for ten thousand Lira, a considerable sum in those days. What is certain is that the patent was transferred to Pavoni in 1903. Another version is that Pavoni bought the factory from Bezzera. Interestingly, La Pavoni company brochures say that the business was founded in 1905. More than likely, Pavoni bought the patent and the rights to make the relief valve machine while allowing Bezzera to make his original machine. That theory would be consistent with the fact that Bezzera did not include the valve on his own machines. Whatever the case, Pavoni’s machine was strongly based on the Bezzera design.
One thing is certain – the stand at the Milan Fair in 1906, though it bore as the main sign the name Bezzera, was in fact a stand which featured the Pavoni machines. Pavoni’s name appears on the column in the stand together with Bezzera’s. In early Italian sources Bezzera’s name was not mentioned. Cougnet in 1909 and Leonida Valerio in 1927 mentioned only Pavoni. Both the Pavoni and Bezzera companies were producing throughout the period and I can only assume that it was the Pavoni machine that dominated the market. Certainly the pressure relief valve is on every modern machine because, with the higher pressure from the electric pump, it is very necessary. Perhaps Pavoni’s gas control valve, which he patented in 1905, was the critical difference between the two machines.

One of the first written references to an espresso machine is by Dr. A. Cougnet writing in 1909 for La Scena Illustrata, a magazine published in Florence. In the article he referred to freshly brewed coffee as the true coffee ‘made on purpose’ recommended by Senator Mantegazza, a writer of books on popular hygiene. Cougnet went on to say: ‘The ldeale is a marvellous patented apparatus, the property of Mr. Desiderio Pavoni of Milan, well-known to all gourmets… and won a gold medal at the recent International Exhibition in Milan”. [English translation]

Electricity and other Developments

In the time of Bezzera and Pavoni, gas was widely used but electricity was becoming more widely available and inventors quickly found new applications. In many cases the ideas were excellent, but were ahead of their time in terms of the pressure and electrical control equipment required to use them. The Marzetti machine of 1910 conveyed the water – which was boiled in the base of the machine by electric elements – through the coffee by steam pressure. Electricity was used in new machines from about 1908 and the Marzetti was one of the first examples of this.

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