Ever wondered who invented the vape? If you rely on the media the chances are you’re getting the wrong answer, because there are a lot of scare stories out there. In fact it’s a tale that goes back to the early 1960s, and it’s not what the media make it sound like.
An evil plot?
It’s common for anti-vaping activists, and their friendly journalists, to imply – or openly state – that e-cigarettes were invented by the tobacco companies to hook young people on nicotine and get them to buy cigarettes. Any discussion about flavoured e-liquids usually ends up repeating this argument, too. The truth is that the tobacco companies had absolutely nothing to do with the invention of e-cigarettes. In fact, for years they ignored them or supported efforts to have them banned.
The reality is that vapes were invented by people who wanted to stop smoking and the aim was to have fewer smokers buying cigarettes. They were about as far from being a plot by the tobacco companies as it was possible to get. So, who were the inventors?
The first electronic cigarette was developed in America. In 1963 Herbert A Gilbert applied for a patent for his “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette”, and the patent was granted in 1965. Gilbert’s invention was nicotine-free, but it produced a flavoured vapour that was supposed to replace tobacco smoke.
Gilbert actually got as far as making prototypes of the gadget, but there wasn’t any real commercial interest. Doctors had only just started to warn of the dangers of smoking; in 1963 about 44% of American women, and over half of American men, smoked. Nobody was worried about the health risks so nobody was looking for a safer alternative.
There were some technical challenges, too. Gilbert’s design relied on battery power, but battery technology in the early 1960s was a long way behind where it is now. Rechargeable batteries were expensive and usually heavy; conventional batteries weren’t cheap either and had limited energy storage. The first electronic cigarette was ahead of its time both socially and technologically, and after Gilbert’s patent was granted the concept sank into obscurity for almost 40 years.
In 2001, however, it popped up again. Hon Lik was a pharmacist and Chinese traditional medicine expert who worked in an agricultural research lab. His father had recently died of lug cancer and Hon, a heavy smoker himself, decided it was time to quit the habit. Like many people do, he tried nicotine patches. Also like many people do, he found that they didn’t really work very well. Luckily for Hon he had the skills and resources to try something else.
Hon started experimenting with a vaporisation system, testing various liquids to find one that could replicate the feel of inhaling tobacco smoke. Eventually he settled on propylene glycol, a common food additive. This is non-toxic, creates a satisfying vapour, and makes a good solvent for nicotine and flavourings. Along with vegetable glycerine it’s still one of the main ingredients in e-liquid.
While he was looking for liquids, Hon was using a large system built on a console. The next step was to turn it into something that people could actually use. A big advantage he had that Herbert A Gilbert missed out on was affordable, high-capacity batteries. Modern lithium ion batteries, as used in phones, iPods and laptops, can store enough energy to run an e-cig for hours at a time.
Hon’s first designs used an ultrasonic emitter; a jet of pressurised liquid would be turned to a mist of fine droplets by the very high frequency vibrations. He patented this design in 2003. However, when the first commercial product was released in 2004, it didn’t use the ultrasound system. Instead Hon switched to an atomiser using a heated coil, using the same principle as Gilbert’s original design. All subsequent vapes have used this system, which can produce more vapour and also heats it up.
Where we are today
Hon Lik and Herbert A Gilbert share the credit for the basic design of the modern vape device, but a lot of other inventions have gone into the products we can buy today. For example two British vapers, Umer and Tariq Sheikh, improved the basic three-piece design by combining the cartridge and atomiser into a cartomiser. Two other Brits, Matt and Ted Rogers, developed the first “mod”.
Since then dozens of improvements have been tried out, many of them by hobbyists, and some have become mainstream. The two inventors who developed the concept and turned it into a real product gave us a great foundation to build on; that’s why modern vaping equipment is so good. And, of course, they did it all without any help from the cigarette industry. So the next time someone says e-cigs are all a Big Tobacco plot, you can explain to them why they’re wrong.