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THE APPEAL of the mix-your-own-fizzy- drink idea is very British: so long as you place no price on your taste-buds or your time, here is something that will save you money. This premise alone kept sales of the Soda Stream drinks-maker bubbling on the country house circuit for decades.

It is hard to credit, if you know the appliance, but it was originally designed for convenience. William Hucks, head distiller of the Gilbey gin company, launched his distinguished brass and glass Prince of Wales soda-water-maker in 1903, to enable butlers in remote country houses to conjure from humble tap-water as much of the sparkling mixer as their masters' spirits required. There was nothing new in the idea of a water-carbonating device. Joseph Priestley had demonstrated 131 years earlier how the natural effervescence of mineral springs could be duplicated with pressurised air. Factories like Jacob Schweppes's began to proliferate after 1793, gradually adding various mineral salts and flavours: ginger around 1820, quinine tonic in 1858, cola in 1886. What Hucks's device did was to move the carbonation process from bottling plant to butler's pantry, using canisters of compressed carbon dioxide gas.

However, as bottled drinks became cheaper and ever more readily available - and butlers ever scarcer - people needed a better reason than soda water to buy the Soda Stream. It was found in the Sixties, in the form of bubblegum-flavoured concentrates which could be added after carbonation. The company was 'repositioned' as a soft drinks business. In 1985 it was bought by Cadbury Schweppes.

Hucks's butler's contrivance never recovered its dignity. The plasticky feel and 'fizzy 'n' fun' graphics of the latest Gemini drinks-maker (price pounds 27.99, gas cylinder refills pounds 3.05, concentrates anything up to pounds 2.75) reveal the extent of the downmarket slide - to, now, little more than a child's toy. The Prince of Wales should be relaunched for adults, in heavy capuccino- machine chrome, as an indispensable adjunct to the age of designer water.