Vapor Trails

honlickA Brief History of Electronic Cigarettes


Electronic cigarettes, commonly referred to as e-cigs and vaporizers, as well as various other names, have been steadily increasing in popularity as a safer alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes and cigars since their inception. But how did they come to be? How have they developed into the modern gadgets that we see today, using technology to provide a simulated smoking experience without the drawbacks associated with “old-school” or “analog” cigarettes, as some people refer to them?

Credit for the invention of e-cigarettes as we know them is generally given to Hon Lik for his invention about 14 years ago. But let’s go back a little further…

Way back in 1927, Joseph Robinson invented and patented the first “Electric Vaporizer”. However, instead of a substitute for cigarettes, Robinson’s intended use for the device was to deliver medicinal compounds through the inhalation of vapors which were produced by electrically heating a substance. While he did not create his vaporizer as a tobacco alternative, its design was very similar to that of modern e-cigarettes.

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Years later, in 1963, a man by the name of Herbert A. Gilbert filed for a patent for a “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette”. His invention, which was featured in the December 1965 issue of Popular Mechanics, was described as a “harmless means for smoking by replacing burning tobacco with heated, moist, flavored air.” He also mentioned using a “chemically harmless flavoring preparation, heated by a suitable heating element” and an object that would “raise the temperature of the inhalant mixture, so that it may approximate that of cigarette smoke”. This is starting to sound a lot like present-day e-cigs.

Gilbert was ahead of his time with his invention, though. Unfortunately, the market for a healthier alternative to cigarettes just wasn’t there yet. During that time, cigarettes were very common and smoking was allowed in most public places, including universities, restaurants, bars, pool halls, and even airplanes. People were not yet aware of the potential health risks and hazards of smoking cigarettes, and as a result, his product did not catch on. The idea was seemingly left alone for the most part, until the year 2000.

It was around that time that a Chinese pharmacist and inventor named Hon Lik came up with his invention of the modern day e-cigarette. According to Lik, “the idea of the electronic cigarettes came to me in a dream in 2000. Coughing and wheezing, I imagined I was drowning, until suddenly the waters around me lifted into a fog”. A few years later in 2003, shortly after his father, who was a heavy smoker, passed away from lung cancer, Lik was motivated to turn his dream into a reality. He patented and released the first modern e-cigarette into the market. Hon Lik said that his invention “relates to an electronic atomization cigarette which contains nicotine without harmful tar. The electronic atomization cigarette includes a shell and a mouthpiece. The advantages of the present invention include smoking without tar, significantly reducing the carcinogenic risk. Furthermore, users still feel as if they are smoking and experiencing the same excitement, and the cigarette has no need to be lit and has no fire risk.”

The product was developed with the backing of the company Hon Lik worked for, which assumed the name Ruyan, meaning “like smoke”. These e-cigarettes became popular in the Chinese market very quickly. They made their way into the European and American markets within a few years of their release in China.

Over the years, there has been some difficulty with the sale and distribution of e-cigs in some states and countries due largely in part to a lack of long term studies done on them and insufficient health-related data. There has also been some controversy over how to regulate them. Despite these hurdles, they have gained momentum and millions of people are now giving them a shot and making the switch. It will be interesting to see how they evolve and what role they will play in years to come.

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