The artful invention

of the Moka Pot 

by Giulia Zarpellon

  Giulia Zarpellon is a PhD candidate at Polytechnique School of Montreal in Applied Mathematics.

Giulia Zarpellon is a PhD candidate at Polytechnique School of Montreal in Applied Mathematics.

It’s morning, and as every other morning my small Moka Pot is on the stove, and I’m waiting for the coffee to come up with its familiar bubbling sound.

I look again at it and suddenly realize that I know how the Moka works, yes, but I don’t know... how was it invented? 


A story of laundry machines and other circumstances...

The famous name behind the stove-top espresso maker is Alfonso Bialetti, an Italian engineer who worked in French aluminium industry for 10 years; in 1918 he returned home to Italy, and set up his own workshop in Piedmont, producing metal household goods. However, not many people know that the fame of Bialetti is due to his purchase of Luigi De Ponti’s invention in 1933. 

The idea for Moka didn’t originate in the kitchen, but in the laundry room: the idea came by observing washing machines which at the time used a pipe to drew hot soapy water from the bottom of a large pan boiler and spread it on top of the clothes; De Ponti decided to try and adapt the same idea to make a coffee brewer. 

In fact, the concept behind how a Moka Pot works is not difficult: a bottom boiler is filled with water, and a funnel-shaped metal filter is inserted and filled with finely-ground coffee. Then the upper part, which has a second metal filter at the bottom, is screwed tightly onto the base. When the water is brought to its boiling point, steam creates in the boiler and pressure builds up in the lower section (valves and gaskets make the process safe). A high enough pressure gradually force the surrounding boiling water up the funnel, through the coffee powder and into the upper chamber, in a tasty and charming voyage that ends up in your small espresso cup. The gurgling bubbling hissing noise is due to bubbles of steam coming up the funnel, indicating that the lower chamber is almost empty and that the brewing should be stopped. 

It is nice to discover how the design of Moka was influenced by historical and cultural factors: in the 1930s, an embargo on stainless steel was imposed in Italy, thus aluminium became the national metal. Moreover, the 19th century saw a number of attempts to brew coffee with steam, with the goal of brewing it strongly and quickly. Some coffee brewers took the shape of a train locomotive, highlighting the connection between speed, power, strength and modernism, concepts which were very familiar to the Futurism movement taking place at the beginning of the century. How different than the The octagonal design of the Moka’s base was inspired by popular Italian silver services, leading the idea that anyone could start to enjoy an espresso at home and marking an historical shift into a democratization of the style of coffee, that was previously tied to cafes or restaurants experience, and for men only. 

Design and craftsmanship, industrial innovation, cultural and historical shifts are all embedded in this charming octagonal piece of creativity, which stood the test of times, remained unchanged through the years and is nowadays loved not only by Italians. 

Ideas come from everywhere and it’s impossible to know what will happen as a result, but the important thing is to try! 

Will you remember the washing machines the next time you will spot a tiny Moka Pot, with the iconic drawing of moustachioed pointy-fingered Bialetti adorning it?