The first modern method for making coffee—drip brewing—is more than 125 years old, and its design had changed little. The "Biggin", originating in France ca. 1800, was a two-level pot holding coffee in an upper compartment into which water was poured, to drain through holes in the bottom of the compartment into the coffee pot below. Around the same time, the French developed the "pumping percolator", in which boiling water in a bottom chamber forces itself up a tube and then trickles (percolates) through the ground coffee back into the bottom chamber.
Other coffee brewing devices became popular throughout the nineteenth century, including various machines using applications of the vacuum principle. The Napier Vacuum Machine, invented in 1840, was an early example of this type. While generally excessively complex for everyday use, vacuum devices were prized for producing a clear brew, and were actually quite popular up until the middle of the twentieth century.
The principle of a vacuum brewer was to heat water in a lower vessel until expansion forced the contents through a narrow tube into an upper vessel containing ground coffee. When the lower vessel was empty and sufficient brewing time had elapsed, the heat was removed and the resulting vacuum would draw the brewed coffee back through a strainer into the lower chamber, from which it could be decanted. The Bauhaus interpretation of this device can be seen in Gerhard Marcks’ Sintrax coffee maker of 1925.
An early variant technique, called a balance siphon, was to have the two chambers arranged side-by-side on a sort of scale-like device, with a counterweight attached opposite the initial (or heating) chamber. Once the near-boiling water was forced from the heating chamber into the brewing one, the counterweight was activated, causing a spring-loaded snuffer to come down over the flame, thus turning "off" the heat, and allowing the cooled water to return to the original chamber. In this way, a sort of primitive automatic brewing method was achieved.
Percolators began to be developed from the mid-nineteenth century, with James Nason patenting a version in Massachusetts in 1865. In both Biggin and percolator devices, however, similar functional requirements are central: gravity or pressure is used to move water into contact with coffee for a sufficient amount of time to infuse an acceptable amount of flavor, and then those same forces act to remove the brewed coffee from the grounds, which to the greatest extent possible, are kept separate from the finished product. Domestic electrification simplified the operation of percolators and vacuum systems and made them ubiquitous in American homes. A critical element in the success of the electric coffee maker was the creation of safe and secure fuses and heating elements. In an article in House Furnishing Review, May 1915, Lewis Stephenson of Landers, Frary and Clark described a modular safety plug being used in his company’s Universal appliances, and the advent of numerous patents and innovations in temperature control and circuit breakers provided for the success of many new percolator and vacuum models. Notable new models included Farberware’s Coffee Robot (introduced in 1937), the Knapp-Monarch Therm-a-Magic (1931), and the very popular Sunbeam Coffeemaster introduced in 1940. Sunbeam was one of the first manufacturers to move away from the all-glass construction (prized for maintaining purity of flavor), to nickel-plated copper.
A number of different machines used to automate these methods were around until the mid-20th century. In 1972, the first automatic drip-brew coffeemaker for home use, Mr. Coffee, was introduced (Bunn had come out with an automatic drip-brew machine for commercial use in 1963). It combined aspects of both the drip-brew process and the percolating process with the added feature of heating up the water using an electric element in a separate chamber. Since that time, the number, style, and size of these appliances have increased dramatically.