Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, July 10, 1896 – Nov 7, 1962


While doing research for my recent Chemex post, I came across several fascinating articles about the inventor himself, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm. He sounded like an incredibly charismatic fellow who would have been a pleasure to have coffee with.

Last week marked 49 years since Dr. Schlumbohm passed away on November 7, 1962, from a heart attack at 66-years old. He accomplished much in his abbreviated life, during which he held 300 registered patents, more than 20 belonging to the MoMA permanent collection. The Chemex coffee maker, which coffee lovers are most familiar with, was named one of “100 Best-Designed Products in Modern Times” in 1958 by the Illinois Institute of Technology—quite the accolade for a coffee maker.

Well over one million dollars’ worth have been sold in the last five years. The Chemex, currently on sale in 3,000 U.S. stores at $6 for the one-quart size, is a typical bit of Schlumbohmiana…
Life Magazine, 1949

Apart from spending 8 years studying Chemistry at the University of Berlin, he also had an incredible design sense that permeated his inventions. There is remarkable elegance and simplicity in the way he blended glass with materials like wood and cork, which most certainly played a role in his success. The importance Dr. Schlumbohm placed on design was no accident either:

After 22 years of inventing, Schlumbohm has come to certain conclusions about it. He feels that just seeing the problem to be solved is 20% of the inventive process. Finding a patentable idea that solves it is 40%. Good design (“Eliminate everything that’s wrong, and what’s left will be right”) is 30%, and merchandising is the remaining 10%.  –Life Magazine, 1949

Dr. Schlumbohm even played the role of marketing director for his products:

Dr. Schlumbohm does all his own selling, writes his own advertisements, direction leaflets and brochures and even types out his own patent applications—one draft only, since he refuses to make a mistake.  –Life Magazine, 1949

What little I could find of Dr. Schlumbohm’s specific thoughts regarding coffee always seemed to be from the perspective of a Chemist more than a consumer:

Ground coffee contains only two desirable ingredients: aromatic coffee oils and caffeine. The rest is a vile mixture of some 50 different chemicals, including such ‘skunky stuff’ as mercaptan. –New York Times Obituary, 1962

But apart from his scientific analysis of coffee, he understood what consumers wanted (or needed). In that same New York Times obituary, Dr. Schlumbohm is quoted, while pointing at a Chemex, “With this, even a moron can make good coffee.”

For that we thank you. Cheers to you Dr. Schlumbohm.

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