To qualify as an espresso machine, a coffee maker needs a few special qualities. One defining feature is the ability to brew a single-serve coffee that has been made ‘to order’ rather than batch brewed. Customers would have to wait until the early 20th Century for this sort of technology to arrive. But some of the coffee makers from the 19th century that were precursors to modern espresso are altogether ingenious, bizarre, and occasionally, downright dangerous.
The term espresso was used a lot earlier than you might think. In the 1860s, caffè expresso referred to a brew that has no resemblance to what we call an espresso today. When the author and journalist George Sala visited Rome and Venice in 1866–1867, he described the caffè expresso (which he spelled with an x) as a slightly more expensive alternative to the caffè ordinario. Judging by Sala’s description, spending an extra penny to upgrade to a caffè expresso would get you a larger, stronger, and ‘positively palatable cup of coffee and four big lumps of sugar’ (Sala 1869).
An argument ensues over the origins of the word espresso. Older sources suggest that espresso is simply the past participle of the Italian esprimere, which translates to ‘press out or squeeze out’ and is derived from the Latin exprimere. But, as the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary explains below, this notion has since been rethought:
‘[The term] espresso, specifically when used in Italian restaurants, has a meaning of “quickly made to order” — possibly to distinguish from brewed coffee made as a whole pot. And while the Italian esprimere does mean “express” in the sense of “to put into words” or “to make known”, espresso does not mean “pressed” as those early usage commentators claimed. That has caused etymologists to rethink the connection of espresso to the pressing out of coffee beans and back toward the method of delivery —