Most home coffeemakers are made chiefly of plastic, crammed full of proprietary digital electronics, and not particularly inviting for modding. But the Rancilio Silvia is an exception. I presented an abbreviated history of this maker-friendly espresso machine in my book, Made by Hand:
Most companies aren’t interested in creating maker-friendly products, but sometimes, apparently by accident, a product comes off the assembly line that way. The Rancilio Silvia is just such a machine. It was introduced in 1997, not as a commercial product but as a thank-you gift to importers and vendors of Rancilio’s expensive restaurant-grade espresso machines. Unsurprising, then, that the machine shares many characteristics of commercial equipment — robustness and repairability being chief among them.
When Rancilio decided to offer the Silvia for home use, the coffee hacking community quickly adopted it as a hackable platform for all kinds of experimental modifications. The folks on alt.coffee, the early hangout for espresso geeks, ran Silvia through her paces, carefully recording and reporting the data they collected. The Silvia became the most well-documented espresso maker in history thanks to its legion of hacker fans, who studied every detail of its inner workings and shared them on the Internet. They also obtained the Silvia’s schematics from Rancilio and made them available as PDF files. They began calling the machine Miss Silvia, which shows the level of affection its owners had for it. People merely get by with their affectless Mr. Coffee, but for these coffee hackers there’s a real personal relationship with Miss Silvia.
There are a lot of reasons to love the Rancilio. It’s got a powerful pump to push water through densely packed, finely ground coffee. It’s made of chromed steel, and the boiler and portafilter are made of heavy marine-grade brass. And, for espresso hackers, the Silvia stands above other machines because it’s easy to modify. In many ways, it’s like a pre-1960 automobile. The electronics are simple, with no microchips, digital readouts, or transistors. The steel cover can be removed with an ordinary Phillips-head screwdriver. And once you take the cover off, you see that there’s plenty of room in there. It’s easy to access all the inner workings of the machine. You can get your hands inside to add and remove components.
Hats off to Rancilio for manufacturing this moddable, caffeine-spewing exemplar of elegant engineering. This 2012 Makey nomination is for you!
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