Prior to that time, cigarettes had been rolled by hand. Readymade cigarettes were a luxury item, but became increasingly popular. The slow manual fabrication process—a skilled cigarette roller could produce only about four cigarettes per minute on average—was insufficient to satisfy the demands in the 1870s. In 1875, the Allen and Ginter company in Richmond, Virginia, offered a prize of US$ 75,000 (equal to $1,674,091 today) for the invention of a machine able to roll cigarettes. Bonsack took up the challenge and left school to devote his time to building such a machine. In 1880, he had a first working prototype, which was destroyed by a fire while in storage at Lynchburg, Virginia. Bonsack rebuilt it and filed a patent application on September 4, 1880. The patent was granted the following year (U.S. patents 238,640 from March 8, 1881 and 247,795 from October 4, 1881). Bonsack's machine was able to produce 120,000 cigarettes in 10 hours, (200 per minute), revolutionizing the cigarette industry.
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