Espresso Machines: An Illustrated History
Moriondo's patent for a steam-powered coffee machine (source: wikimedia commons)
The 19th century in Europe brought huge steps forward in the preparation of coffee. Cafés flourished but brewing coffee was a slow process. Angelo Moriando of Turin, Italy is the first inventor linked to the beginning of the espresso era. In 1884, he was granted a patent for “new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage”. This pretty much describes any espresso machine even today. But Moriando’s machine in reality was simply a bulk coffee brewer using a slightly elevated 1.5 bars of steam pressure to hasten the brewing process. Normal coffee preparation methods (drip, French press, etc.) are 1 bar and true espresso, coming much later is 8-10 bars.
Bezzera's espresso machine at the 1906 Milan Fair (image: Bezzera)
Luigi Bezzera, a Milanese engineer, obtained the first patent on an espresso machine (the Tipo Gigante) which featured portafilters, multiple brewheads and a boiler which reached 1.3 bars. However, Bezzera was unable to capitalize on his invention and instead sold his patent in 1903 to Desiderio Pavoni of Milan. Working together, they added a pressure relief valve (a manual version of today’s three-way valve) and a steam wand. At the 1906 Milan Fair, Italians were introduced to the “ideal” coffee machine, which could produce 150 coffees an hour, and to the new beverage that Pavoni called “caffé espresso”.
Famous Victoria Arduino poster (image: Wikimedia Commons)
Meanwhile, back in Turin Pier Teresio Arduino designed a similar machine that could produce 1,000 cups per hour. His machine was a tall boiler with gauges, portafilters, and the now-famous eagle on top. Arduino was a better marketer than Pavoni, and he had Leonetto Cappiello design the poster above, which created demand and allowed Arduino to start exporting his machines across Europe.
Officine Fratelli Romanut "la Serenissima" (left) and L'Augusto Brevetti two-group chrome body (right). (Images: Nuova Ricambi)
Between 1910 and 1920, numerous small manufacturers of espresso machines sprang up. Among the most famous were L'Augusto Brevetti Massocco & C of Turin, the Romanut brothers of Udine, and Brunetti.
(images: Nuova Ricambi)
In the 20s and 30s, the market was joined by many more Italian companies — Universal of Milan, among the most promoinent, and Rancilio of Milan, SImonelli of Macerata, and la Marzocco of France (which remain prominent to this day). The column-style espresso machine with polygonal base (pictured above-left), trimmed with enamel and silver, was produced by Universal and won the design award at the 1929 Trade Fair in Milan. Robert Rancilio produced his first machine, the Regina (pictured above-centre), in 1927.
Even with these advancements, the steam pressure in these machines was difficult to control, so the espresso was often bitter and burnt-tasting. It was not until 1935 that engineer Francesco Illy replaced steam with compressed air, which elicited some improvement. Then in 1936, engineer Simonelli introduced a foot pump to ensure a steady and uniform water flow. His machine is pictured above-right.
The Gaggia Classic 48 single-group lever (left) and two-group lever (right). (Images: Nuova Ricambi)
With the great world war over, improvements came quickly. In 1946 Achille Gaggia, a Milanese café owner, invented the first high-pressure piston-operated machine, which featured a horizontally-mounted boiler. Until this time, high temperature steam was driven through the coffee grounds at “low” pressure (1.5 to 2 bars) — but in Gaggia’s machine, the steam drove hot water into the piston chamber. When operated, the piston drove a now standardized one-ounce shot through the coffee bed at 8-10 bars of pressure. With increase in pressure and water temperature (now closer to 195F) came the discovery of crema — the signature characteristic of good espresso. The importance of this development cannot be overstated. Baristas operating the new lever machines coined the phrase “pulling a shot”.
An advertisement for the La Marzocco "Extracrema" (image: Nuova Ricambi).
Achille Gaggia referred to the new layer on top of the espresso as “caffe crème”, a desirable feature of the new drink. Customers took to the newly improved flavour with gusto, and espresso machines became a must-have in bars and restaurants across Italy. Growth was rapid. In the 1950s, companies turned their focus to style as well as performance, since the machines were now becoming the centrepiece of attention on the bar (hence the name “barista” (barman), the operator of the machine).
The la Cimbali hydraulic "Pitagoro" (image: cimbali.it)
In 1956, la Cimbali introduced another technological improvement: the hydraulic group head. Instead of the barista “pulling the shot”, Cimbali used the pressure from the existing water main to force the piston down. Input pressure to the machine was reduced to about 2–2.5 bars. By simply engaging a lever, cold water pushed down a large piston connected to a small piston (about 25% of the size) thereby multiplying the group pressure to 8-10 bars. Although more complicated, and using a considerable amount of water during each pour, this system was much easier for the average barista to use. Hydraulics remained in production right up to the 1990s, especially by la Cimbali, Faema and Rancilio, as the coffee they produced was of a very high quality, helped by the natural (soft) pre-infusion. Many are still in use today. In 1961, Cimbali’s hydraulic “Pitagora” won a prestigious Italian industrial design award.
Faema's E-61 model. (image: Nuova Ricambi)
1960s & beyond
The decade of the 1960s brought one more major evolution to the espresso machine. Where the lever machine was taking water directly out of the boiler to make coffee, Ernesto Valente of Faema in 1961 introduced the heat exchanger and the electro-mechanical pump. This rotary pump now provided the 9 bars of extraction pressure instead of the barista. As well, fresh tap water was heated indirectly by the boiler (the heat exchanger) and sent at a much more precise temperature through the coffee grounds. This machine was the Faema E-61, and almost every machine for the next 40 years followed this revolutionary design. The E-61 group head, as it came to be called, has been in continuous production since then and is instantly recognizable to espresso aficionados. Frederich Berenbusch of (the old) ECM, Milan replicated this design for his ECM Giotto in 1997 and has spawned an entirely new category of E-61 group head “prosumer” machines.
The Rancilio Z8, circa 1971 (image: rancilio.it)
The 1970s mark the start of the modern era of machines. Technological and mechanical improvements were incremental—mostly refinements of the three main delivery systems: spring lever, electro-mechanical rotary pump and hydraulic. Manufacturers began exporting around the world, with machines beginning to penetrate North America. We leave you with the work of the famous Milanese designer Marco Zanuso and his 1971 Rancilio Z8 (pictured above). Capturing the mood of the time, it featured clean lines and became an instant hit in both the domestic and oversees markets.