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The Tobacco Laboratory

( Originally Published 1938 )



As we turned to move on to the cigarette machines, I again became conscious of those omnipresent research men. One of them was standing by the conveyor filling a little jar with tobacco. He looked at his watch, made some marks upon the label of the jar with his fountain pen, and, placing it in his pocket, walked away.

"Let's follow him," said my guide. "I think you'll be interested and we'll come back to the cigarette machines afterwards."

The man walked from room to room through the plant, past great insulated doors, over two streets through overpasses along which conveyors loaded with leaf tobacco moved, and down to the main floor again. At several points he took samples. Finally, he disappeared through a door leading into a series of rooms set apart from the remainder of the factory.

"The laboratory," said my guide. "This is the pilot-house of the plant."

He opened a glass door and we went into one of the rooms. There were rows of high tables, each loaded with apparatus—long tubes of metal and crystal, clamps, racks, retorts, mixers, ovens, refrigerators, flasks under which Bunsen burners played, and hundreds of jars containing samples.

In the sample jars were leaves of tobacco from curing barns, tobacco that had come out of the fields a week before, cores of tobacco bored out of hundreds of hogsheads with a ship's auger, leaf from many storage sheds. On another table were containers with packages of Lucky Strikes that had been purchased and shipped in from various sections of the United States.

At work in this forest of glassware were dozens of young research men—chemists, biologists and laboratory assistants. Some worked upon tobacco, some upon cigarettes, others upon paper, tinfoil, pasteboard. One man was operating a table-sized distilling apparatus. Next to him a chemist stood back and watched the reaction of two liquids in an oversized test-tube.

There were two divisions of the laboratory, one testing the physical and the other the chemical properties of various tobaccos and materials.

I was introduced to one of the chemists. His eyes lit up as he talked about his work.

"You can take the best tobacco in the world, run it through the best plant in the world, and still not get the best results," he said. "We must watch the simplest physical characteristics of our cigarette just as carefully as we guard its chemical characteristics. The circumference of the cigarette, the density of packing, the moisture content—all must be inspected constantly."

He stopped at the table containing the packages that had been sent in from various cities throughout the country.

"These Luckies," he said, holding up a jar, "were purchased at a store in San Francisco. These others were bought in Denver, Colorado. They are in exactly the same condition they were in when purchased, for they were sent from there in a vacuum container. We find out here whether they were in proper condition at the time of sale."

He looked at a chart.

"This batch is up to standard," he said, pointing to the figures. "See, the moisture content is well above the minimum, and they stood up well under the test we make to avoid loose ends."

He showed me the apparatus with which this test was made. Like most of the other strange machines in the laboratory division, it had been designed and made to order. A long metal can was loaded with a pack of cigarettes and rotated slowly end over end for sixty seconds. At each turn every cigarette plumped end-first against the bottom or top of the can. Subsequently the cigarettes were accurately weighed to determine whether they passed the test.

He showed me the technique by which they tested the cellophane and other wrappings to see how tightly they were sealed. The accuracy of the machines used in this laboratory is amazing. Some of the delicate scales are so precise that they can actually measure the amount of moisture in the wing of a bee. I found that the research men took nobody's word for anything.

"We spend most of our time, naturally, upon tobacco," said my new guide. "We examine samples of a crop for our buyers before they start to buy—test it for chemical content. Thereafter we continue to analyze it periodically through-out the marketing season. Our research laboratory has been of great help to our buyers in advising them about the chemical properties of the grades of tobacco in various sections."

I moved on to a table on which there was a row of retorts. A chemist, elbows down on the table, had been running a chemical test upon some unprocessed tobacco.

My guide took a tube from its rack.

"This is a solution of sugar that he has obtained from his sample," he explained. "The sugar content of Bright tobacco is a good index to its quality."

Near another bottle-laden table a man was busy at a desk.

"He is working on the blending formula," I was told. "The blend is controlled in this little corner of the laboratory. Blending is much more than a physical process. To be accurate, it must be governed by chemical analysis."

And now I noticed a very queer thing indeed. At the end of the room was a little metal hood that resembled a miniature railroad station shed. Inside, shielded from drafts by the hood and fastened to little jets, four cigarettes were burning.

"Smoking machine," said the chemist. "Look around behind it."

A tube from each lighted cigarette led to a smoke-filled flask which contained about an ounce of liquid. At the top of each was a chain of test tubes and these in turn were connected to an apparatus about three feet tall.

This machine of glass and metal was breathing like a man!

At regular intervals a column of water rose and fell in a glass pipe. Simultaneously one of the four cigarettes puffed exactly as though a man were smoking it.

"A mechanical lung?" I asked.

"I guess you might call it that."

"Who built it?"

"We did."

Fascinated, I soon learned some interesting facts about smoking cigarettes. The average puff, for instance, contains 35 cubic centimeters of smoke, and the smoke moves through the cigarette at the rate of 17 cubic centimeters per second. The normal time between puffs is 60 seconds. The first portion of each puff is normally stronger than the last. The average smoking life of a cigarette is a fraction more than ten minutes. All of these human phenomena and others were reproduced faithfully by the machine.

"But what makes it go?"

The chemist opened a little door at the base of the rack and pointed to an electric clock.

"These smoking tests are very important to us," he said, "because they show the chemical properties of the cigarette under actual smoking conditions."

The smoke in the flasks settled in the solution at the bottom. Every single product of combustion was trapped for later analysis.

I asked about cigarette paper.

"We've done a lot of research on cigarette paper," he said. "You see, the paper must be absolutely pure and as completely free from irritating qualities as the tobacco itself."

With another testing machine and a micro-scope he showed me that the paper contains tiny air passages that assure smooth, regular combustion.

I would be in the laboratory still had I waited for the chemist to show me all of his equipment. As it was, he had used up most of his luncheon hour talking to me. He had forgotten all about it, as had I.

"The company places great emphasis upon research," he continued. "Practical experience has taught us much about tobacco but research adds to our knowledge every day."

He reported that approximately one-fourth of the time of the laboratory unit is spent upon the analysis of tobacco samples; another fourth in the control of the various products purchased for manufacture; and the remaining half upon general research in all fields of handling, blending and processing.

As I started out of the laboratory, the lunch-eon hour was coming to an end. I went upstairs to see the cigarette-making machines with a new perspective on the intricacies of cigarette manufacture.



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