Tobacco pipe hand drawing vintage clip art isolated on white background

The Pipe : Extraordinary Ordinary Things

I hate smoking. I have since I was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s. At that time, a sure sign that one had passed from childhood to adulthood was smoking. At about the age of 10, I decided to get a preview of what would soon be coming my way. So I stole a cigarette from my father, hid behind the garage, lighted up—and nearly coughed my lungs out. I quickly decided that adults were crazy. This was my first cigarette and my last cigarette; I never saw any reason for trying again.

But to be clear, when I say that I am implacably opposed to smoking, I mean only cigarettes. This is because most people I know who smoke cigarettes seem to be addicted to them, puffing away 20, 30, and even 40 of the filthy weeds a day.

However, I don’t feel the same way about cigars and pipes. Why? Because as a child I knew a man who every evening after dinner would sit himself down in a big comfortable chair, take out his pipe, and light up. The look that came over his face when he took that first puff was a joy to behold. He smoked only one pipeful a day and truly enjoyed it. It wasn’t an addictive habit, but rather pure, unadulterated delight.

I still don’t smoke although recognizing a qualitative difference between cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. One is a health-destroying addiction while the others can be a delightful, largely innocuous pleasure; cigar and pipe smokers generally do not inhale the noxious fumes. And certainly they don’t smoke cigars or pipes 20, 30, and even 40 times a day.

I subsequently learned that pipe smoking predates cigarette smoking by many centuries, if not millennia. And had (and still does) play important social and cultural roles to which cigarette smoking could never lay claim.

For these and other reasons, I believe the pipe justifiable belongs on the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

History of the Pipe

The origins of the tobacco pipe are still somewhat a mystery, despite its presence across all continents for thousands of years. It seems as though nobody can accurately date the first appearance of the pipe.

The first smoking pipes found in Europe, from around 500 BCE, were made of wooden stems or reeds. Nomadic Indo-Europeans, the Scythians, used them to inhale the smoke from campfires. In turn, Greeks and Romans adopted the pipe, as well as Germanic peoples and Celtic tribes, who used them to smoke all sorts of herbs, and particularly the leaves from linden trees.

Tobacco as we know it today, and the culture that surrounds it, come from the Americas. Long before  European explorers set foot in the New World, American-Indians cultivated this plant as a medicinal treatment, but also to smoke. They rolled up tobacco leaves in the shape of a large cigar that they called “tabaco.” They burned these rolled tobaco leaves, along with the other herbs, in their famous tobacco pipe, which today is known as a “calumet.”

The tobacco plant still didn’t exist in Europe. It was in 1492 that Christopher Columbus discovered the plant on his expedition to America. He reported it upon his return to Europe, and shortly afterward the first manufacturing of tobacco pipes was registered.

The first manufactured tobacco pipes were made of clay, mostly came in Northern Europe, and became available around the end of the 16th century. It was at the beginning of the 17th century when William Baernelts moved from his native England to The Netherlands to launch the first mass production of clay pipes. Despite starting out slowly, production eventually expanded to England and the south of France. After the Thirty Years’ War in France (1618–1648), the first clay pipes were made in Dunkirk and Dieppe, replicating the Dutch design. Due to its free port status, Dunkirk played a key role in receiving tobacco from North America and distributing it across the territory.

In the early 19th century, things started to speed up for pipe smokers. French General Antoine Charles Louis de Lasalle in Napoleon’s army declared that “a hussar (soldier in the light cavalry) that does not smoke is a bad soldier!” Following the advice of his general, Napoleon arranged for the creation of a tobacco pipe that would be specifically designed for soldiers in combat.

According to uncertain history, during the Crimean War (1853­–1856) a certain Corporal Bouffard, head of a regiment of soldiers, lost both of his arms due to cannonball fire during the Siege of Sevastopol. In one of his hands, he was still holding his pipe. It is he who gave the name “Bouffard” to the pipe, which it is still known as in France today.

In the mid-19th century, France saw its first industrial factories for pipe manufacturing. Heather was discovered for the fabrication of tobacco pipes in 1856, and great manufacturers like Butz-Choquin and Chacom made Saint Claude, a small village close to Jura, a renowned place for pipes. Likewise, Saint Claude is generally recognized as the world capital for the manufacture of briar-wood pipes.

During the 20th century, the pipe officially entered the army and became something of a military symbol, a trademark of WWI French soldiers and British officers. In these periods of conflict, French expressions “Aller au casse-pipe?” literally “to go to the broken pipe” (meaning to go to war), and “casser sa pipe,” literally “to break one’s pipe” (meaning to die), came into use. The pipe still has military connotations; who can imagine General Douglas MacArthur without his ever-present oversized pipe either in his hand or in his mouth? However, today the pipe is far more associated with academics, artists, authors, philosophers, poets, and other luminaries of cerebral pursuits.

Science of the Pipe

Given that most pipe smokers view smoking not as a habit or hobby, but rather as a ritual (if not a religion), it is not surprising that the number of pipe varieties in terms of shape and materials would boggle the mind. But however wide the apparent differences, the basic structure of the tobacco pipe remains the same.

A pipe consists of a bowl where tobacco is burned and a stem through which the smoke is funneled to the mouth. Each of these two basic parts is composed of subparts specifically designed to carry out its function for the greatest efficiency and pleasure of the smoker. For example, there are one or more draught (draft) holes in the stem. Air drawn in through the holes helps transport the smoke in the bowl to the smoker’s mouth. The names of other parts of the pipe are less self-explanatory, such as the bit, lip, mortise, shank, tenon, etc.

Pipe-smoking Competitions

Pipe smoking competitions have been described as the “slowest sport in the world.“ True to the pipe’s nature, these competitions are not about doing something faster or under more arduous conditions, but rather how long the competitors can make the contemplative pleasure of pipe smoking last.

The rules may differ somewhat from place to place and country to country; however, the basics are generally the same. Each participant is given an identical pipe (briar or clay), which is to be filled with exactly 3 grams of tobacco. During a period of one minute, the competitors light the tobacco in the bowl with a maximum of two matches. The winner is the one who keeps the tobacco burning for the longest time.

While a regular pipe is generally smoked within a half-hour, an experienced competition smoker can keep a pipe burning for over two hours. Some champions have actually gone over three hours.

The first European Championship for pipe smoking was organized In 1969, followed by the first World Champion in 1971. Since 1982, the World Championship has been held every four years. Originally only for individuals, in 1985 the World Cup was opened to teams. Each member of the team smokes his or her pipe. The winner is the team with the longest collective smoking time among the competitors.

Pipes and Culture

You may go days, even weeks, without seeing a pipe. But when one does happen to come into view, you would not be surprised. Why? Because while we seldom think of it, the smoking pipe is very much a feature of our cultural landscape.

We almost never call it a “smoking pipe,” because when you say someone has a pipe you are almost always speaking about the thing you put into your mouth to puff on, not any of the other meanings of the word such as a gas pipe, oil pipe, water pipe, or perhaps even bagpipe, which some people stubbornly contend is used to play music.

The pipe has somewhat of a split personality in terms of its effects on society.

  • On the positive side, many of the world’s most highly respected personages have been pipe smokers because it seems to help them in their ruminations and cogitations. For example, Ludwig van Beethoven, Jacques Cousteau, Albert Einstein, William Faulkner, Greta Garbo, Günter Grass, Ernest Hemingway, C. S. Lewis, Douglas MacArthur, Arthur Miller, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Georges Simenon, Joseph Stalin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Mark Twain, and Orson Welles, to name just a few.
  • On the negative side, the pipe is often touted as being the safest way of consuming tobacco because, in general, pipe smokers do not inhale the toxic fumes. This is probably true. However, the pipe is also the preferred method of using (or abusing) more toxic substances such as opium, methamphetamine, crack cocaine, and other psychedelic drugs.

Women and Pipes

If you were paying attention, in the list of pipe-smoking luminaries mentioned just above you may have noticed the name Greta Garbo. Yes, Greta Garbo, the famous film actress. This may have shocked you since today women and pipe smoking are normally not associated, and even considered an anathema. However, this was not always the case.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, in Europe women were commonly seen smoking pipes in public. Many paintings of the period show noblewomen smoking pipes. The middle classes were also eager to enjoy this new pastime. Dutch, English, and French women all partook of the “Indian weed.”

By the 1850s, when pipe smoking became more strongly associated with the working class, female smoking began to decline, at least in public. Historians believe that while many women still enjoyed puffing on a pipe, they did so mainly in private because it was considered disgraceful to do so in public.

This was mainly in big cities. In rural areas such as the Highlands of Scotland and in Ireland, women smoking in public did not carry the same stigma. Women in the Hebrides islands off the coast of Scotland openly smoked pipes well into the 1930s due to their cultural isolation; likewise for women in the Appalachian region of the eastern United States. Today, women smoking a pipe in public, or even rumors that they may be doing so in private, draws immediate notice, and sometimes even censure and ridicule.

It should be noted that the information in this section applies essentially to western culture, essentially Europe and North America. In other regions, and notable among “lesser developed peoples” (tribal), pipe smoking among women is less uncommon.

Incidentally, Simone de Beauvoir (French author), George Sand (French author), and Virginia Woolf (English author) are three more famous Western women who smoked a pipe. Don’t be fooled by the apparently masculine name George Sand. She wrote under the name George Sand because at the time women authors were not taken seriously, so to get published she pretended not to be. Virginia Woolf was less encumbered by this social prejudice.


I have already mentioned numerous famous pipe smokers, overwhelmingly men, such as Faulkner, Grass, Hemingway, and Tolkien, associated with the arts. The effect of pipe smoking on the arts (literature, painting, poetry, etc.) transcends real people. Pipe smoking is also integral to the fame and reputation of famous fictional characters. To name but a few:

  • Captain Haddock. Belgian comics character from The Adventures of Tintin.
  • Frosty the Snowman. A fictional Christmas character featured in both songs and cartoon films who is always depicted and described as “With a corncob pipe and a button nose, and two eyes made out of coal”.
  • Sherlock Holmes. British literary character. He is explicitly described as a pipe smoker.
  • Monsieur Hulot. French film character in the film Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.
  • M. British literary and film character in the James Bond stories.
  • Jules Maigret. Belgian film and literary detective.
  • Mammy Yokum. American comic strip and film character from Li’l Abner.
  • Ol’ King Cole. According to the centuries-old British nursery rhyme, “Ol’ King Cole was a merry old soul, a merry old soul was he. He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl, and he called for his fiddlers three . . . .”
  • Popeye. American comics and film characters.
  • Davy Jones. Captain of the Flying Dutchman in “The Pirates of the Caribbean” films.
  • Santa Claus. Folklore character, also known as Father Christmas and St. Nick.
  • Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins. Characters in the Lord of the Rings books and films.


Many paintings over the centuries have shown one or more persons smoking a pipe. In most cases, the pipe was simply a detail; it was in no way central.

Probably the most famous painting including a pipe denies its existence. It is a 1929 work by Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte, “The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe).” The entire canvas is taken up by an image of a pipe except for the caption underneath the image saying “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe). All kinds of deep cultural and psychological implications have been given to this painting, and the discussion still goes on.

Quotations About the Pipe

There is an almost endless number of quotations about pipe smoking from an almost endless number of people in the public eye. And virtually all of them praise the practice. Here are just a handful of my favorites.

“On land, on sea, at home, abroad, I smoke my pipe and worship God.”—Johann Sebastian Bach

“Pipe smoking is the most protracted of all forms of tobacco consumption. It may explain why pipe smokers are generally regarded as patient men—and philosophers.”—Jerome E. Brooks

“A pipe is the foundation of contemplation, the source of pleasure, the companion of the wise, and the man who smokes thinks like a philosopher and acts like a Samaritan.”—Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

“I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.”—Albert Einstein

“As the priest is characterized by his cassock, so the smoker by his pipe. The way in which he holds it, raises it to his lips, and knocks out the ashes, reveals his personality, habits, passions, and even his thoughts.”—E. T. A. Hoffmann

“I hated tobacco. I could have almost lent my support to any institution that had for its object the putting of tobacco smokers to death . . . I now feel that smoking in moderation is a comfortable and laudable practice, and is productive of good. There is no more harm in a pipe than in a cup of tea.”—Thomas Henry Huxley

“A pipe is to the troubled soul what caresses of a mother are for her suffering child.”—Indian Proverb

“Smoke your pipe and be silent; there’s only wind and smoke in the world.”—Irish Proverb

“May my last breath be drawn through a pipe, and exhaled in a jest.”—Charles Lamb

“Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe of sweet hemp, and playing my Hohner harmonica.”—Abraham Lincoln

”The pipe draws wisdom from the lips of the philosopher, and shuts up the mouth of the foolish; it generates a style of conversation, contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent, and unaffected.”—William Makepeace Thackeray

“Pipe smoking is properly an intellectual exercise.”—Christopher Morley

“Oh, give me but Virginia’s weed,
An earthen bowl, a stem of reed,
What care I for the weather?
Though winter freeze and summer broil
We rest us from our days of toil
My pipe and I together!”
—Hermann Rave

“After some time he felt for his pipe. It was not broken, and that was something. Then he felt for his pouch, and there was some tobacco in it, and that was something more. Then he felt for matches and he could not find any at all, and that shattered his hopes completely.”—J.R.R. Tolkien

“Let the toper regale in his tankard of ale,
Or with alcohol moisten his thrapple,
Only give me, I pray, a good pipe of soft clay,
Nicely tapered and thin in the stapple;
And I shall puff, puff, let who will say, ‘Enough!’
No luxury else I’m in lack o’,
No malice I hoard ‘gainst queen, prince, duke, or lord,
While I pull at my pipe of tobacco.”
—John Usher

Pipes and Computing

As far as I know, there are no statistics on how many computer scientists and computer programmers who smoke do so with a cigarette, a cigar, or a pipe. Neither are there any statistics to show that more contemplative computer scientists probably smoke a pipe while more free-wheeling programmers smoke cigars or cigarettes.

There is evidence that anyone who smokes around a computer may be doing their machine long-term damage. At one time (I don’t know if this is still current), the Apple warranty permitted the company not to repair a computer if there were signs of smoke damage. Presumably, such damage would have been largely from cigarette smoke rather than cigar or pipe smoke. Why? Because people who smoke cigars and pipes generally do so for pleasure and relaxation, not out of habit (or addiction). So over time they would burn considerably less tobacco, thus generating considerably less smoke to harm their machines.

According to numerous dictionaries, the word “pipe” is fundamentally defined as a tube through which a liquid, gas, or fluid-solid is transported from one location to another, and then may give a listing of different types of pipes, e.g. exhaust pipe, hosepipe, tailpipe, pipeline, windpipe, etc.

Some dictionaries give what appears to be a second definition of pipe, i.e. an instrument for smoking tobacco. Clearly, this is only a special case of the general definition. After all, a “tobacco pipe” (to give it its full name) is essentially an instrument for transporting tobacco smoke from one end of the instrument to the smoker’s mouth at the other.

Given its fundamental definition, the pipe plays numerous indispensable roles in computing.

Douglas McIlroy, one of the architects of the Unix system (1965), introduced the concept of composing a command line from more than one program strung together with the output of one feeding the input of the next. The whole line was called “command pipeline.” The vertical bar symbol was used to separate the component programs and came to be called “pipe symbol.” The implementation stores the contents of such a pipe in a file and calls that special file a “pipe file.” This concept is present today in Unix systems, Linux (derived from Unix), and the command language in the MacOS console.

A pipeline is a set of data processing elements connected in series such that the output of one element is the input of the next one. The elements of a pipeline are frequently executed in parallel or in a time-sliced fashion, with some amount of buffer storage often inserted between the elements. Examples of computer pipelines and pipelining include:

  • Instruction pipelines. These include the classic RISC pipeline used in CPUs and other microprocessors to permit overlapping execution of multiple instructions with the same circuitry. The circuitry is usually divided into stages. Each stage processes a specific part of an instruction at a time, then passes the partial results to the next stage.
  • Graphic pipelines. Found in most GPUs (graphics processing unit), these consist of multiple arithmetic units or complete CPUs which implement various stages of common rendering operations such as perspective projection, window clipping, color and light calculations, rendering, etc.
  • Software pipelines. These consist of a sequence of computing processes (commands, program runs, tasks, threads, procedures, etc.) conceptually executed in parallel with the output stream of one process being automatically fed as the input stream of the next. The Unix system called “pipe” is a classic example.
  • HTPP pipelining. This is the technique of issuing multiple HTTP requests through the same TCP connection without waiting for the previous one to be finished before issuing a new one.

The notion of a pipeline has leaked into other areas of our lives such as “education pipeline” (students flowing through grades K-12, and then through college and graduate school).

Pipeline is also used as a conceptual model for research, where it consists of four stages—research, development, prototyping, early implementation, and final adoption. This concept was adopted by the U.S. federal government in the 1950s as a way of sponsoring and managing research.

The pipeline is also used as a model for innovation, based on the belief that innovation begins with research ideas, then are progressively refined by passing through different stages of development.  Unfortunately, this is not a very good model because businesses that follow it often report high failure rates for their innovation projects.

To conclude, here are a few additional aspects of computing where a pipe or pipes are used.

  • Memory. A pipe is a temporary section of computer memory capable of linking two or more computer processors in order to increase the overall efficiency of the computer.
  • Cabling. A pipe is a cable used to transfer large amounts of data for one or more people on the internet.
  • Slang. “Huge pipe” describes someone with a lot of bandwidth.
  • Keyboard. A pipe is a special key on a computer keyboard. Depending on the language of the keyboard (AZERTY, QWERTY, etc), the pipe key is generally represented as a single vertical bar (l) or a double vertical bar (ll). It is used for a variety of purposes:
    1. Represent an OR boolean operator
    2. Delimiter—one or more pipe characters may be used as a delimiter in a text file.
    3. Command separator—used in the command line, a pipe can redirect a command’s output to the input of another.