Growing up in the sixties and seventies, all the grown-ups we knew smoked 2 packs per day and brewed endless cups of coffee in percolators. Everyone had one in the kitchen and it was always perking away.
Sleek, streamlined, and way more efficient than traditional stove-top coffee-making methods, the percolator epitomized the modern world of Mad Men and Madison Avenue. Housewives everywhere loved the lack of mess and convenience these little chrome pots offered, even though the coffee they brewed tended to taste a bit muddy.
That’s because the brewing process in a percolator often overheats the water and forces brewed coffee back through the grounds, producing a less than optimal cup. When percolators were popular, few people cared much that coffee tastes better when brewed at temperatures slightly below boiling. Indeed, that percolators produced perfectly plasma-hot pots of coffee was one of their principal appeals.
Count on a Rumford to Burn on a Stove
That’s no surprise because the percolator was invented by one of science’s pioneers of heat studies, Sir Benjamin Thompson. Known in Germany as Count Rumford, Thompson was born in colonial Massachusetts, where he first developed his interest in science and things that go boom. During the American Revolution, Thompson abandoned his wife and fought for the Loyalists, helping the British develop more effective explosives, which drew nods from the Royal Society in London.
But it was in Germany, Bavaria to be more precise, that Thompson really made a name for himself as an Enlightenment Geek of the highest order. The Holy Roman Emperor appointed Thompson to reorganize the army and eradicate poverty.
Made a Count of the HRE and taking the name of his childhood home, the newly named Count Rumford invented Rumford Soup, an early attempt at nutrition that includes 1 part barley, 1 part yellow peas, 4 parts potatoes, salt, and sour beer which became a common soldier’s ration in Eastern Europe into the twentieth century.
Count Rumford experimented widely on the nature of heat and refined many household items, inventing the Rumford Roaster, the Rumford Fireplace, and the percolator, an entirely new way of brewing coffee.
No Match for Mr. Coffee’s Unbelievable Hitting Streak
Rumford’s heat studies made him a household name at science academies and other egghead clubs everywhere. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences even forgave his Loyalist activities and made him an honorary member as early as 1789. But Rumford never patented his percolator and it didn’t become widely available to consumers until the 1920s, long after he had been forgotten.
Then, almost overnight, around the early 1970s, percolators went the way of the mastodon. What happened?
In short, a guy named Mr. Coffee killed the percolator. He was a dapper, grandfatherly gentleman who looked remarkably like Yankee great Joe DiMaggio and appeared on television hawking a new-fangled machine called an automatic-drip coffee maker.