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The Origins of the Atomic Coffee Maker

The Atomic coffee maker is a glorious creation of the heyday of Italian design, from the same era that produced the Olivetti typewriter, the Vespa Motor scooter and Pinin Farina's Fiat cars. It is also from the period that gave birth to the Chevrolet Corvette, the Boeing 707 and the Parker Ballpoint pen. It belongs to the same design tradition as Ettore Sottsass, Ray and Charles Eames, and the Sydney Opera House. Like other products of the Organic Design movement, the Atomic is characterised by being ergonomic, sculptural and state-of-the-art.

It is made of aluminium alloy, partly because aluminium symbolised modernity when the Atomic was made in the 1940s, partly because Il Duce's Italy of the 1930s controlled plentiful bauxite resources and encouraged designers to use them, and partly because those designers already knew that over time aluminium reacts with coffee to impart a mellowness to the drink.

Atomics were maniufactured for four decades from the late 1940s. The stovetop pressure pot design was well understood by the 1920s; what Giordano Robbiati did was take this concept and make it convenient to use, first by simplifying the design and ease of cleaning, then by adding the steamer wand. It was really the steamer wand that won the public over and secured the Atomic its place in history. The 4-6 bar pressure unit does not provide the same level of extraction as a modern or manual espresso machine, but it makes up for this with a smooth and sweet brew which avoids all trace of bitterness.

A Gorrea Atomic Coffeemaker

The Espresso Revolution

The biggest modern revolution in coffee originated in Italy, but it was not a new technology, just a word. The word was “espresso”. What the Italians did was take the basic technology of a pressure pot, turn it into an object of art and place it where the customer could admire it while they watched brewing technology work for a “market of one”. So successful was this business model that some of the early manufacturers in the 1890s, like La Pavoni, are still household names today.  The ability to continuously brew fresh, fragrant and controlled coffee led to a huge upsurge in popularity and attempts were made to replicate the technology on a small scale for domestic use, retaining the essential features of espresso extraction — controllable pressure, a cup at a time.  Over time, the basic technologies of pressure pot, drip filter and espresso have been refined and developed to meet the broad array of contemporary coffee tastes.  The Atomic is merely the most memorable of the pressure pot refinements, rather than a radical new development. It was, as modestly and fairly claimed by Signor Robbiati, an “improvement” in aesthetics, functionality, stability and convenience.

How the Atomic Works

The pressure pot technology works as follows: water in the kettle is heated to boiling point, producing steam which expands, forcing the water at the bottom of the kettle up the pipe inside the neck of the Atomic to the head, where it is then guided through the grounds by the funnel into the jug

 

The Atomic Patents

There are two patent numbers commonly associated with Giordano Robbiati and the Atomic coffee maker — 633988 in the UK and 2549132 in the US. 

In the UK patent applied for in 1947 and ostensibly accepted in 1949, Robbiati claims several advantages for his improved design - specifically great stability and the ability to keep the brewed coffee warm. The US patent, also filed in 1947 (but not granted until 1951), identifies the original Italian patent application number — 757219, dated 14 September 1946 — and contains more sophisticated detail about the invention. 

Robbiati claims as the basis for his patent application seven design features, namely (1) the integration of kettle, neck, filler and coffee pot, (2) the curved design of the neck to allow central discharge, (3) the construction of the head, (4) the filler hole in the neck, (5) the bayonet clamp for the coffee holder, (6) the safety valve, and (7) the separation of the two pressurised components, the kettle and the head space.

Other Atomic patents and associated links (contributed by Paul Schilperoord) include:

- IT 757219 (Italy)
- DE 838493 (Germany)
- FR 955982 (France
- AT 167450B Austria
- BE 478076 (Belgium)
- NL 67725C (Holland)

Atomic Patent Robbiati

Atomic Coffeemaker Patent Schematic