Balancing Syphon For Coffeemaking
The story of coffee-makers is a treasure trail of art, craftsmanship and ingenuity, hidden behind the three-and-a-half centuries of a commerce in coffee, which began with a few trade routes and grew into a worldwide commodity market second in importance only to oil.
This information will be of interest and delight all who enjoy the pleasures of drinking coffee. Getting interested in the history of coffeemaking devices you can find out about the new field for collectors of attractive and unusual mechanical devices which include the delicate balancing machines of the France of Louis Philippe, the magnificent silverplated syphons of Victorian England and toy-like coffee making locomotives which appeared all over Europe with the new railways. As furnishing pieces they richly deserve to regain the place they once had in the dining rooms of prosperous on the end of nineteenth century families.
Since the hundreds of original ideas were almost invariably patented, the information on dates, inventors and mechanisms has an accuracy unique in the field of collecting. Every generation and most countries of the Western World made their individual contribution to the brewing of coffee: the quaint, spirit lamp heated cafetieres of Europe, and more recently the electric percolators once beloved by Americans, and the original but rapidly disappearing Italian hand lever espresso machines which symbolize a post-war era which has become the latest historical period in its own right.
The French double glass machine was a phenomenon, which had not completely succeeded, but on the other hand had by no means failed. Price lists for the flasks for Napier machines make it clear that thin-blown glass of the mid-nineteenth century was capable of withstanding quite easily any amount of boiling water, but they did require care. Inventors had great confidence in them since they took out patents for fifteen years, but they were really ahead of glass technology. They did not have the heatproof glass that coffee machine manufacturers have available to them today. Also, the enormous interest in coffee making in the early 1840s had its own inevitable consequence: fashionable Paris moved on to something new.
The Bastien patent of 1842, one example of which still exists in Paris, is the link between the two-tier machine and the next fashion, which was the balancing syphon. Bastien's is a double glass machine with the two flasks arranged side-by-side instead of one above the other. The boiling water is forced through a filter box containing the coffee into the second flask fitted with a tap. The necks of both flasks are held by a single crosspiece, and this is not only more stable, but puts both the heater and the serving tap at the same convenient level. The only thing it lacks is a method of automatically extinguishing the heat, and this improvement followed almost immediately.
Balancing syphons outlasted Louis Philippe and went right through into tile Second Empire. Like tile double-glass cafetiere, they all have a superficial resemblance but there were many variations. With persistence, it is still possible to collect most of them but anyone wishing to do so should hurry while they are still available. The one in the Science Museum in London was found sitting, unrecognized, on the mantelpiece of a curator's office, but that was a few years ago and their days of obscurity are over.
Balancing syphons combined maximum efficiency with the maximum visual appeal. They provided inventors with years of harmless fun and became popular all over Europe. They are sometimes described as 'Viennese syphon machines'. As in the case of the glass double-flask machines, it is difficult to discover the exact moment when they first appeared since documentary evidence only begins when they are improved, but in France they were often known as a "gabet" and Louis Gabet, who had a workshop in the Marais district of Paris, took out a patent in 1844. He did not claim ownership of the entire construction of the balancing syphon but he did give a complete description of it and he added a statement at the end of his specification that he would defend his counterpoise device by legal action if necessary. The Gabet model with the counterpoise was one of the more successful forms of balancing syphon, and the way it worked is as follows.
The weight of the cold water in the right hand container, which was commonly ceramic, held open the lid of the spirit lamp. When the water passed over into the glass flask the empty jar rose, assisted by the counterpoise action of the weight attached to the ring around the flask. The lid was released and flipped shut to extinguish the flame. The air in the jar then cooled and the partial vacuum drew back the coffee, causing the jar to descend again.
The superior merits of the balancing syphon hardly need stating. It was extremely safe, it was completely automatic and it offered great opportunities to manufacturers of metal stands, painted china and gilded glass. There were soon dozens of people doctors, mathematicians, pharmacists and cafe proprietors as well as metalsmiths and glass makers who crowded in with their improvements to the balancing mechanism and arrangements of the syphon tube. Turmel's quite late patent of 1853 shows that it was possible to make a perfectly simple design very complicated.
The balancing syphon even came to England where Apoleoni Pierre Preterre of le Havre sent Greeting to her most Excellent Majesty Queen Victoria in a patent of 1849. England, with its increasingly prosperous middle classes, must have looked very attractive to Preterre where the rest of Europe was collapsing into revolution behind him. His specification is an omnibus package which includes a roasting apparatus and coffee mill as well as a balancing syphon with a counterpoise similar to Gabet's. A very interesting feature is the alternative two-tier version with the spirit lamp between them. It would be very interesting to know if an example of this still exists.