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Cigarette machine

September 11, 2001

A public radio commentary

If I had to name an inventor who'd made the largest impact on the last century, I'd consider James A. Bonsack. The economic impact of his work might put him up there with Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and the flying Wright brothers.

Using an incredible system of gears, rollers, and levers, it made one hundred thousand cigarettes a day. As Bonsack noted in his patent application "This general result has heretofore been attempted, but so far as I know with but little success." Indeed, an efficient way to make cigarettes was the stumbling block to bringing tobacco to the masses.

In the years before Bonsack's invention, in the early 1870s, tobacco consumption had fallen to an all-time low, yet cigarette sales were outstripping demand. Growers had learned that nicotine delivered by inhalation is a highly addicting substance. Once inside the body nicotine is absorbed by the vast surface of the lungs, and passes rapidly into the bloodstream. From there is it carried back to the heart, which sends a large dose directly, and undiluted, to the brain. The brain, takes in all of the nicotine carried to it. This process take only seven seconds. Compare that to heroin, which, when injected in the forearm, takes 14 seconds.

So, growers worked out a way to cure the smoke so that it could be taken into the lungs, unlike cigar and pipe tobacco, which are too harsh. This new tobacco created a demand for cigarettes, the ideal vehicle for inhaling nicotine. James Bonsack's machine met the need with flying colors.

Perhaps it isn't fair to blame Bonsack entirely for this. The demand for cigarettes reflected the spirit of the age. A cigar and a pipe were smoked slowly and leisurely, but a cigarette reflected the quickening pace of our nascent industrial age. A cigarette was "light, quick, and short", a "potent symbol of the new velocity of modern life."

With Bonsack's speedy automatic cigarette making machine, manufacturers helped Americans to smoke over a billion cigarettes by 1889, increasing twenty years later to over ten billion. Today American's smoke nearly a trillion cigarettes per year. This, of course, has taken a tremendous human and economic toll.

No wonder some have dubbed the 20th century the "Cigarette Century." Let's hope the 21st century gets a better title.

The quotations are from Tastes of Paradise by Wolfgang Shivelbusch published by Pantheon, New York, 1992.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises