Cigarette Automation – Duke and the Bonsack Machine

1876, James Buchanan Duke “Duke of Durham”

James Buchanan “Buck” Duke

James Buchanan “Buck” Duke

James Buchanan “Buck” Duke grew up in the family business, Washington Duke, Sons & Co. Tobacco. As cigarettes became more and more popular Duke hired 125 experienced hand-rollers and a factory manager from New York. By 1883 the workers could roll up to 250,000 cigarettes a day.

1880 – Cigarette Machine

In 1880, the Allen and Ginter Tobacco Company offered a $75,000 prize for the invention of a machine capable of automating cigarette production. A young inventor James Bonsack won the contest by inventing a machine that could produce 120,000 cigarettes in 10 hours or about 200 per minute, 50x faster than hand rolling. The machines broke down often which discouraged companies from buying them

1884 Duke’s Deal and the American Tobacco Company

The belief that consumers would continue to prefer hand-rolled cigarettes added to the stigma against the precision uniformity of machine-rolled smokes. Most major cigarette makers rejected the Bonsack machine almost immediately.  In 1884, the Duke Company took a chance on the imperfect Bonsack machine. They leased and installed two of the machines in their Durham factory.

James Bonsack

 Bonsack Machine with Technician

The Bonsack Machine Company sent a mechanic, William T. O’Brien, to Durham to maintain and refine the apparatus. O’Brien and James B. Duke improved the machinery to such a point that the cost to make a cigarette was 25% percent below the competition.