A revolutionary invention.
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Bonsack machine and operator, 1880s.
In the last part of the 19th century, as the demand for cigarettes was rising, tobacco companies sought new ways to speed up the production process. At the time, the best hand rollers could make only four cigarettes a minute; it was a slow and expensive process. In 1877, the Allen & Ginter Company of Richmond offered $75,000 to anyone who could invent a cigarette-making machine.
Enter 18-year-old James Bonsack, who lived between Roanoke and Bedford. Possessing a mechanical mind and an itch to make money, he dropped out of Roanoke College and within months had made a prototype contraption full of gears, rollers and levers that fed tobacco onto a continuous strip of paper, then pasted, sealed and cut the cigarettes. According to writer Deedie Dent Kagey, Bonsack had problems getting the cutter to work properly: “Frequently, cigarettes a foot or more long would come out, which were thrown out the window onto a lot during cleanup. Young boys of the neighborhood [were] abundantly supplied with cigarettes during his tinkering days.” In 1880, Bonsack patented his invention.
The Allen & Ginter Co. installed the steam-powered machine, but after several failures, the firm discarded it. In 1884, W. Duke and Sons Co., led by James Buchanan Duke, installed two Bonsack machines in its Durham, N. C. factory, refined them and was soon producing 120,000 cigarettes a day. By the turn of the century, Duke’s American Tobacco Co. was one the largest cigarette makers in the world, and Americans were smoking 10 billion cigarettes a year—a bad habit, but we can’t blame Bonsack for that. By age 23, he was wealthy, but Kagey writes that “in future years he failed to use his ingenuity to create other useful devices.” The town of Bonsack, in Roanoke County, is named after him.