The history of the electronic cigarette spans more than 50 years
Electronic cigarettes may seem like a recent invention, exploding onto the market and evolving quickly from fairly simple “cigalikes” to complex personal-vaporizing devices. In truth, the original idea for e-cigs was developed more than 50 years ago, and the first commercial development happened more than a decade ago.
The history of the electronic cigarette started with Herbert Gilbert who filed a patent for the first non-tobacco cigarette in 1963. He found a way around the toxicity of cigarette combustion by using flavored, warm, moist air as a substitute. His idea involved using water vapor to disperse a variety of flavors, including mild menthol and simulated Scotch whisky. The basic design was very similar to modern e-cigarettes, but Gilbert faced serious obstacles.
In addition to replacing cigarettes, Gilbert intended his device to act as a medication inhaler, such as for asthma, but the cigarette-like appearance contradicted the intention in order to attract smokers. The liquids for Gilbert’s device were also nicotine-free; however, smoking was quite popular in the 1960s. Few people recognized the health hazards, and the big tobacco companies advertised widely and successfully. Many people smoked, and they smoked everywhere. Gilbert’s design was never produced.
Forty years later, a pharmacist in China named Hon Lik developed a way to deliver nicotine without tobacco or smoke. His father had contracted fatal lung cancer from smoking, and he was a heavy smoker himself, relying on nicotine patches to quit. Hon also wanted to eliminate cigarette combustion, and he experimented with ultra-sound and atomization to produce vapor resembling cigarette smoke. He was the first to suggest using propylene glycol as the liquid dispersant, and he also proposed housing the liquid in plastic cartridges that doubled as mouthpieces.
Hon’s 2003 patent went into production the same year, and he is typically credited with the invention despite Gilbert’s early work. The Chinese public quickly adopted the devices; many European nations followed in 2006; and electronic cigarettes reached the United States between 2006 and 2007. Around the same time, Tariq and Umer Sheikh of Great Britain developed the first cartomizer, combining the e-cig heating coil with the liquid chamber. Cartomizers were easier to use than the original three-part models, which consisted of a separate battery, atomizer and liquid chamber.
Many nations, including the United States, tried to ban or limit the use of electronic cigarettes. In 2008, the World Health Organization declared that they were not a viable way to quit smoking. Yet in the same year, a New Zealand study found that e-cigarettes were far less dangerous than traditional cigarettes. Some governments and health organizations have passed or proposed standardization regulations to address safety concerns, and many have legislation pending.
Despite the ongoing arguments about electronic cigarettes, they continue to grow in popularity and evolve in design. Many smokers have converted due to improved quality and an increasing number of options. Meanwhile, cigarette companies, who once wanted to protect their lucrative tobacco markets, have joined the trend by producing their own e-cigarette models.