history & evolution of the atomic

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Squareheads and Roundheads

The first Atomics had a flat-topped head secured to the main body by screws from the underside and a group head with gently curving tapered profile, in contrast to the later models which had a rounded head and an angular coffee clamp. They are also notable for the fact that the casting hole, which in later machines is fitted with a plug, has been welded closed and polished over to remove all but the slightest trace. With that single exception, they look like the drawings in the patent specifications of 1947, which is perhaps not surprising.  However, there is enormous variation in the recorded shapes of the accessories like the filler knob, coffee clamp handle and jug, leading one to wonder whether all of them can possibly be genuine.  It is possible they are — the Atomics were essentially hand-crafted, and both straight and round-sided jugs feature in sales literature — but the Qualitál may be an exception .

The other most noticeable innovation is the introduction of the enamel finish in the 1960s and 1970s, partly a response to fashion changes, partly a strategy of renewal, and partly aimed at cost-saving.

There are many minor variations in size, shape, badging and accessories, but apart from the introduction of the steam wand, these are essentially matters of detail.

Today, the Atomic continues to inspire modern designers, with both high-quality reproductions and modern reinterpretations being introduced to the market.

A Gorrea Atomic

A10

Steam Wand Innovations

The earliest Atomics did not have a steam wand. This was added, most likely in the early 1950s, initially placed in the head.

Sassoon Atomic with Head wand

This proved unsatisfactory in practice, and the location of the steam wand was moved part way down the neck to the point of maximum steam pressure.

Atomic coffeemaker body

 
BREAKING NEWS: My friend Mik Janvier has been putting in some sterling efforts to remove some of the mysteries surrounding the early Atomics and replace them with facts. While we might lament the loss of some of the romance, it will be good to have more information based on interviews with some of the people who were directly involved. You can see some of the early results of Mik's investigations as Youtube clips, here and here.

One of the consequences of his work, is that we may need to become more precise with our use of the "Atomic" label. As you see in the video clips, Atomics were made in all shapes and sizes, manual and automatic, electric powered and stovetop, as were their close cousins the Stella machines.

No doubt for many of us, it is the "classic" Atomic form - the small Henry Moore sculpture - that will continue to command our affections, but we also need to respect the power and variety of the original brand and its corporate history. More news on this, I hope, in a month or two.

Mik assures me this page will need to be completely rewritten as the result of his work. I look forward to it. Anything that provides the Atomic community with more knowledge is welcome.

Variants

Virtually every part of the Atomic has variants. There were changes in the shape of the filler knob, the size and colour of the steam valve knob, the choice of Bakelite colours, the shape and size of the jug, the number and size of the filter baskets.

Three specific "innovations " should be noted. The first was the addition (and then removal) of a Bakelite jug cover to keep the coffee warm and act as a drip tray while the coffee was being poured. This became obsolete once the steam wand was added.

The second was the addition of a brass rod to the bottom of the coffee clamp, designed to seal off the unit and retain steam pressure. This was an engineering disaster, because the cooling clamp would contract and lock the rod in place so it could not be removed except with brute force.

The final "innovation" is exclusive to Thos. Cara - a pressure gauge in the head to display the "bar" reached during brewing. Probably the least useful and certainly the least beautiful of all the changes made in Atomic design.

Atomic coffee maker jug cover

Atomic coffeemaker Thos. Cara pressure gauge

The Mystery of the Qualitál

The Hungarian version of the Atomic, badged as Qualitál, is intriguing for two reasons. First, it is the only Atomic that claims not to have been made in Italy. And second, it has more variants in knob and jug form than all other Atomics put together.

Our view, in the absence of proof to the contrary, is that the Qualitál is an East European reproduction made during the Cold War when Hungary was behind the Iron Curtain, and that the design variations were never sanctioned by Robbiati. But this is just a guess.

Qualital Atomic badge