The inventor of the cigarette rolling machine was James Albert Bonsack. He was born in 1859 and invented the machine in 1880. Prior to Bonsack’s invention, all cigarettes had to be rolled by hand. That meant cigarettes that were already made were considered a luxury item, but the rolling machine made pre-made cigarettes a more viable commercial option.
Because demand was so high for readymade cigarettes and even the best rollers could only produce four cigarettes per minute, a company offered an open prize of $75,000 to anyone who could develop a viable machine. Bonsack chose to patent his machine instead.
At full speed, Bonsack’s first rolling machine could create 200 cigarettes per minute. This completely changed the cigarette industry and by 1888, all cigarette rollers in the area were replaced by machines.
Bonsack Sold His Invention to James Duke
The cigarette rolling machine was Bonsack’s only noted invention and patent. He ended up selling his machine to James Buchanan Duke. Duke was the owner of the American Tobacco Company and by 1890, Duke’s cigarettes were making an impact on the global market because he could sell cigarettes at a much lower cost than his competitors thanks to the rolling machine. By 1924, which is when Bonsack passed away, almost everyone could afford to purchase cigarettes and because they were still considered a bit of a luxury item, most of them did.
There were some other remarkable inventions that came out of the initial tobacco industry, even if they didn’t come from Bonsack or the American Tobacco Company. Here is just a brief look.
The Tie Boy Machine
Cigarettes used to be sold in bags instead of boxes. These bags needed to be tied closed and so the cigarette companies would hire boys who could sit on top of the machinery to bag each one as it came by. The Tie Boy machine was able to automatically tie the strings on the tobacco bags, replacing the need for the youngsters to do the work and it was initially created for the Bull Durham Company by John Dalton.
Improvements to the Bonsack Machine
Although the Bonsack machine could roll hundreds of cigarettes per hour, it created inconsistent folds at times and this would cause the machine to break down. This would require a worker to clean out the machine and then reset it for it to begin working once again. Tim O’Brien was a mechanic who worked on the machine and because he made improvements to it that made it more efficient, he began receiving death threats. After all, one machine could replace 48 workers.
For many years, the income that came from cigarettes and the tobacco industry helped to fuel the American Southeast and especially North Carolina. Although automation forced cigarette rollers to go into cigar rolling, become machinery attendants, or move out of state, the income became a force of development thanks to the cheaper cigarettes that could be produced with the automatic rolling machine. To that extent, it is feasible to say that Bonsack was an inventor who may have had the greatest impact on his industry in the last 100 years.