*
               * <-- Smoke
              **
              *           *
    Bowl --> \_*_/       *  *
              | |        **
     Pipe --> |*|       // <-- Mouthpiece
              | |      //
         (----|*|----)//
Carb --> 0   *| | *  */
         |* * | |**  |
         |~~~~|*|~~~~| <-- Waterline
         | *  | | ** |
         |  *  ** *  |
         (___________)

The above is a simple diagram of what a bong may look like and the description below is how it works. There are many types and variations of bongs which vary in complicatedness, but this one here has been kept basic for simplicity's sake.

How it works: Preferred smoking substance is placed in the bowl (the bottom of the bowl contains a fine-meshed screen so air and smoke can travel down but the material cannot fall in) and it is lit so it starts to smolder. Then, the carb is covered (the carb is just a hole to let air in and out for regulating the vacuum) and the air already inside of the container is sucked out through the mouthpiece to create a vacuum. If the vacuum is kept, the surrounding air on the outside of the chamber will naturally want to migrate into it to equalize the pressure, and the only path for it to do this is through the bowl, pipe, and water. As the air rushes through the bowl it pulls smoke along with it from the smoldering substance down the pipe and then bubbles up through the water into the vacuum area. Once it contains enough smoke for a hit, the carb is uncovered and the person sucks the air and smoke through the mouthpiece for inhalation. Once you have uncovered the carb, the vacuum is broken and any suction on the mouthpiece will draw the air and smoke from the chamber, but not from the bowl. All of these basic principals of vacuums, high-pressure, and low-pressure might have seemed boring to learn in grade school, but now you can have some fun with them.

As far as I know, most of the noxious or carcinogenic chemicals in smoke, (cannabis or otherwise) are oil soluble. Which means that a bong is not actually doing much to protect you against chemical poisoning.

I think that the reason that bongs work to make smoking more palatable (and indeed, more healthy), has to do with the fact that they remove particulate matter from the smoke, that is, chunks of ash that go into the water and don't go back through the air and into the mouthpiece due to the force of gravity. While even the smallest of these pieces is a gigantic heterogenous piece of mixed vegetable matter on the molecular scale, they are still too small for the eye to detect. But even at such a small size, a bong works by seperating smoke by physical, not chemical means.

Of course, someone could build a bong carbed with alcohol or olive oil, but that would kind of defeat the purpose, wouldn't it?

Of course, this is all only theory, since I am not the world's largest expert on getting stoned or the physics of smoke.

A bong's purpose is two fold.

In theory, there is a vacuum created in the bong chamber by sealing one end with your mouth and the other with the bowl of the bong, which contains the entirely legal tobacco substance that you are smoking with it. However, this is not the case. As any smoker will tell you, you do in fact get a large amount of smoke in your lungs in the process of taking the hit, before the bowl is removed and you empty the chamber. After all, you have to be drawing the smoke from somewhere, and that means that no matter how hard you try, air comes in through the bowl when you suck. However, if the bowl is well packed, you will draw a far greater quantity of smoke than air. Those who do not fully pack their bowl do not deserve to be getting high anyway, as they are not experiencing the true effect of the bong, so maybe there are some Darwinian forces at work here. For a bong that produces a greater vacuum, see gravity bong. They aren't nearly as much fun though.

As the smoke is drawn from the bowl through the water, there are very few carcinogens removed, and the tar is mostly intact as well. A cotton filter is far more effective at removing some of the tar - just look at a cigarette filter when you're done smoking one. However, particulate matter - the ash of the burned, entirely legal tobacco substance - remains in the water, due to a combination of the water and, of course, gravity. This makes the smoke more palatable, and removes a lot of the pain from a hit. This makes the smoke healthier than from your average pipe, and who wants all of that nasty stuff in your lungs anyway?

The greater impact of the water, however, comes from the smoke temperature, which is lowered greatly as it travels through whatever liquid you have chosen to put in your bong. As well as the water cooling the smoke, most of the smoke sits in the smoke chamber for a while as you fill it, thus cooling it even more. The bigger the water chamber, the greater the cooling effect, up to a certain point; smoking out of a fish tank does not cool the water much more than a good sized water chamber.

Other random bong-related information:

The mouthpiece of the bong is usually made out of whatever material the bong is cast in. However, many plastic bongs, and some glass ones, have plastic pieces that fit over the top edge of the bong, and keep your lips from coming into contact with the bong. Health fanatics will replace these, sometimes before every session, but to most people, they are a permanent fixture.

Much of why smokers love bongs is because of the pure taste you get. Thus, purists stand by their glass bongs. Glass does not flavor the entirely legal tobacco substance, and makes it taste quite delicious. For the greatest effect, you must use a glass bowl as well.

Many smokers experiment with the liquid inside the water chamber. Either out of desperation (oh no! We don't have any water! "Here, have my beer."), or curiosity. I have not found another liquid that tastes very good, but cranberry juice makes for an interesting, and somewhat pleasant flavor.

Bongs are also often referred to as a binger, or a tube.

Now quit reading this, and go get blazed.

Bongathon

Honestly, this does not endorse the use of drugs, illicit or otherwise (really, I am NOT kidding). Drugs (cannabis, alcohol, nicotine, etc.) make one feel good. That's why people use drugs. Drugs exact a price. People I know have died using drugs, and because of drugs. That's a good reason to not use them or to not start using them. Seriously.

Take this as a snapshot for posterity. True vignettes like this may be useful to future sociologists.

Bongathon's were popular on the UCLA campus between the years of 1976 and 1982. They probably took place before and after that time period, but my sources can only verify for those years.

A bongathon required at least two participants. The number of a typical group was 6-8 individuals. A communal bong was used. The typical bong used was a commercial version (i.e., available in local head shops "off the shelf") with a base tube approximately 30 cm. tall, and able to contain about 0.5 liters of liquid. In recreational smoking it wasn't unusual to use beer, whiskey, whisky, wine, or orange juice as a filtering liquid. For the purposes of a bongathon only water was used, though crushed ice was allowed in order to cool the smoke.

The participants of the bongathon would bring their own "stash." Each "stash" consisted of about 30 grams of whatever popular cannabis was available. At that time in Los Angeles, cannabis was readily available. It still may be so.

The rules were simple with the participants sitting on the floor in a circle. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was optionally played loudly in the background. Alternatives were any music by Bob Marley or Queen. Disco music was verboten. The first participant would put weed in the bong and take a hit. The bong would then be passed around with other participants taking hits sequentially. As the herb was consumed, the next participant would re-fill the bowl of the bong. Each person would, in turn, re-fill the bowl of the bong as needed.

Determining the winner was as simple as the rules: whoever was left conscious was "the winner." The winner was rewarded by being able to drink the bong water.

No one could ever remember who won, but invariably, the bong water was gone when all woke up the next morning.

It was traditional to then eat many hotcakes.

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