When Did Drip Coffee Makers Come Out ?

The Percolating History of Drip Coffee Makers  

By: James Butler      Revised by: Mark Cambell   Last updated: Feb 4, 2024

If you're like me and can't start your day without a hot cup of joe, you probably owe a debt of gratitude to some innovative coffee lovers over the past century. The ubiquitous automatic drip coffee maker that happily perks on your kitchen counter, providing a steady supply of fresh brewed coffee whenever you want it, has a fascinating history. Let's travel back in time to explore the percolating story of how drip coffee makers came out to save us from the tyranny of instant coffee granules.

In the beginning, there was boiled coffee. Early coffee drinkers got their buzz by boiling coffee grounds in water, then straining out the grounds. I hope they had good dental plans. Boiling made for a bitter brew and gritty mouthfeel. Not ideal. 

The first leap forward came in France in 1822 when the infusion brewing method was patented. Ground coffee was steeped in hot water, then strained. This produced a smoother cup of coffee but was still inconvenient, messy and time-consuming. 

In 1852, US inventor John Harris introduced a primitive percolator that circulated boiling water through coffee grounds. This was familiar to most households for decades and as a child, l remember the burbling sound and intoxicating smell of coffee percolating. However, percolators tend to make coffee that's & I quote ;strong as death, black as hell, and sweet as love," as an old Turkish proverb describes it. I prefer a smoother, mellower taste.

Melitta Bentz, a German housewife, invented paper coffee filters in 1908 and the filtered pour-over coffee maker. This was a marked improvement but still manual. Where was the modern electric coffee maker?

Have no fear, the Germans were on the case. In 1933, Dr. Gottlob Widman and his son Gottfried invented an early electric vacuum coffee maker for their company Melitta. But the pivotal moment came in 1954 in Cincinnati, Ohio when two ambitious entrepreneurs named Frederick Bowers and Kenneth B. Bacon invented the first electric automatic drip coffee maker. Their Maxwell House Major Coffee Maker could produce multiple cups of coffee by continuously circulating hot water over coffee grounds.

Genius! No longer would sleepyheads have to manually pour just-boiled water over coffee and wait for it to filter through. The age of the automatic drip coffee maker had arrived and over the following decades, companies like Mr. Coffee, Bunn, and Cuisinart introduced improved versions that were more affordable, efficient and compact. 

Today, automatic drip coffee makers are ubiquitous and affordable. For between $20 to $200 you can get a drip coffee maker with various bells and whistles that can brew anywhere from 2 up to 14 cups at a time. The inexpensive models are simple but effective. High-end models offer programmable timers, temperature control, built-in grinders and brew strength options. Some space-age models use single-serve pods and others have settings for cold brew coffee. No one has an excuse for resorting to instant coffee granules these days!

The difference between brewed coffee and drip coffee is like the difference between walking to work and driving your car. Both will get you there but drip coffee is infinitely more convenient. The key principles however remain the same: using hot water to extract the flavor and aroma compounds from ground coffee beans. The drip method just automates and speeds up the process.

So, the next time your drip coffee maker gurgles to life and fills your kitchen with the comforting aroma of fresh brewed java, tip your mug to Melitta Bentz, Dr. Widman, Bowers and Bacon, and all the other innovators that helped deliver us from the nightmare of boiling pots and gritty coffee granules. Their gift of automated drip brewing has caffeinated generations. May our coffee makers continue perking for years to come!

All in all, while the Germans invented filter papers and early electric coffee makers, the first automated electric drip coffee maker was invented in the United States by Bowers and Bacon in 1954. Their invention revolutionized coffee making and further innovations by companies like Mr. Coffee and Cuisinart made drip coffee makers accessible to all, allowing even the least manually-dexterous amongst us (myself included) to enjoy fresh drip brewed coffee with minimal fuss or mess and at a reasonable cost. And for that, I will be forever grateful as I sip my morning 'cup of joe'!