An Interview with the Inventor of the Electronic Cigarette, Herbert A Gilbert

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by: James Dunworth

Last year, when I was writing up the history of the electronic cigarette, I mentioned Herbet A. Gilbert, who is considered by many to be the inventor of the modern electronic cigarette.

I also wrote:

Herbert A Gilbert may still be alive, if this post is genuine. (Herbert, if you’re out there, I’d love to interview you!)

Fortunately, Herbert, now in his 80′s, did read the post, got in contact with me, and the following interview (I believe the first ever blog interview with the inventor of the e-cigarette) is the result!

Update: You can also now read our interview with Dr Norman Jacobson, who pioneered the user of the term vaping in the 1970′s and 80′s.

Herbert Gilbert: Background

Black and white headshot of Herbert A Gilbert taken around the time he invented the e-cigarette.

Herbert pictured in the 1960′s.

JD: Herbert, What was your background prior to inventing the e-cigarette?

HG: I graduated college with a B.A. in business and then went directly into the service. I am a Korean veteran. My father had a scrap yard in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania and that is where I went to work. I am just your normal, average logical guy and the “logic” is my best asset.

JD: Were you a smoker yourself?

HG: Sure was…a 2 pack a day for years…stopped cold turkey about 20 years ago.

The First Electronic Cigarette

Image showing a short article on the original patent application.

JD: What gave you the idea for your design?

HG: I’m a logical guy and logic told me to define the problem and then develop a solution. the problem, as I concluded, was that when you burned leaves and wood, even if you did it in your back yard, it yielded a result that no one wanted to take into their lungs.

For example, you can chew lettuce leaves…they are good for you and cinnamon is like tree bark and it doesn’t hurt you…but…if you dried them out, ground them up and mixed them together, put them in a big paper bag and set it on fire, the result would be nothing you would want going into your lungs. To put it as simply as possible, the problem could not occur if there was no combustion. Eureka!

I had to find a way to put out the fire. wait…they used fire in my aunt’s bakery to make bread and cookies from flour…so what was different? They didn’t burn it they cooked it and the aroma was a treat. Nobody screamed, “the oven is on fire! lie on the floor and crawl outside.” At this point I happened to remember how tea is brewed. That solved the problem. Using logic I had to find a way to replace burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavored air.

Design, Prototypes and Production

Image showing how the electronic cigarette would work.

JD:  Was a prototype ever built?

HG: Using the technology available in 1963 I concluded that a battery powered heat source would do the job and the first electric cigarette was born. I did build prototypes and tried using various flavors of water as steam … and it worked.

JD: Are there any surviving prototypes?

HG: Unfortunately the warehouse at the scrap yard in Beaver Falls, where most of my stuff was stored, burned down. I don’t have any…but someone may come out of the woodwork with one when Emperor Brands 1963 Original starts advertising.

JD: How does your design differ from the current electronic cigarette?

HG: There is no electric cigarette today, that I have seen, that does not follow the basic road map set forth in my original patent. If you remove any part shown in my original patent from their electric cigarette it will not function. It may be positioned differently, sized differently, controlled differently…but…it still follows the road map set forth in my patent drawings.

JD: Why wasn’t the design put into production?

HG: Those I showed it to could have done it but they chose to wait for the patent to expire and then filed their own versions. I showed it to chemical companies, pharmaceutical companies and tobacco companies and they did what they did to try to protect their markets. I am sure that many great inventions that could have benefited people, in the past and even today, receive the same treatment. As John Cameron pointed out to me, timing can be everything and I was ahead of my time, and in the midst of what some might say was the most powerful advertising period of big tobacco.

JD: There’s evidence that Big Tobacco deliberately suppressed healthy alternatives (covered in A History of the Electronic Cigarette), as producing and marketing these would have meant admitting that smoking was unhealthy. Are you saying that is the case here?

HG: I merely reported what happened to me and to my patent fifty years ago. As for now, with major tobacco companies becoming more and more involved with their own electric cigarette brands, logic tells me it is not happening now, nor will it happen in the future.

Herbet Gilbert’s E-Cigarette v. The Modern E-Cigarette

Herbert A Gilbert e-cigarette in hand.

JD: In your opinion, would a device which produced tobacco flavored air have been as effective as one which produces vapor?

HG: No. A major part of the tobacco smokers addiction is said to be the tactile / physical aspect, (the other part is the chemical addiction). Therefore in my opinion, without the visual effect of vapour, which makes the “addict” think of their usual “smoke”, I doubt it would work nearly as effectively. Further, I am willing to wager that referring to steam as vapor is even older than I am…so feel free think of my flavored, medicated, water steam as vapor because that is how logic dictates i view this question.

Again read the patent application which provides for, “inhaling warm medication into the lungs in case of a respiratory ailment under direction of a physician.” You will find this, in writing, at the end of the first paragraph. There is no difference because my electric cigarette by any other name is still my “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette”, which happens to be the title of my application.

JD: How did you feel when the electronic cigarettes began to take the world by storm?

HG: Read my statement on the Emperor web site under “history”.

JD: Do you see Ruyan e-cigarette invented by Hon Lik as an evolution of the one you designed, or a product that took a completely different direction?

HG: If it walks like a duck, has web feet, has a bill, swims in the water, looks like a duck and quacks….its a duck.

Restrictions on Electronic Cigarettes

JD: What are your thoughts on moves by governments and anti-smoking organisations to restrict or forbid the sale of electronic cigarettes?

HG: Logic again tells me that it is a combination of a lack of education/understanding and fear of what they consider the unknown. from my point of view it is a simple question: “Are you kidding?”

To my knowledge nothing has stemmed the increase of the number of tobacco smokers, not legislation, special packaging and warnings nor death. I believe that my invention is the first chance we have to do so. Prove me wrong. In my opinion, legislators should be doing all they can to help with this solution, including proving it works. Government needs to help with the solution. Once they understand that what is delivered can be completely controlled so that anything bad can be, has been, and if identified as bad, will be removed then, rather than fight it, they will encourage it as a total replacement for cigarettes and some types of medications.

Herbert Gilbert Today

Photograph of Herbert A Gilbert today

JD: How did you become involved in Emperor Brands?

HG: The best answer for this is covered on the emperor brands web site again under “history”. John David Cameron, of Emperor Brands, is the gentleman who searched me out and recruited me.

JD: What’s your role there, and how are you helping to develop the 1963 electronic cigarette?

HG: I worked with his team members and used logic to follow my roadmap and apply 21st century available technology to it. I will continue to do whatever I can to keep updating the technology and will remain devoted to promoting the 1963’s. Emperor Brand’s goal and my goal are the same. We want to save as many lives as we can.

JD: Where do you see electronic cigarettes going in the future?

HG: I believe there is no question about the future of electric cigarettes. As knowledge grows, and it will, so will the market and I am proud to be the one who started it all.

Finally…

Did you get some value out of this interview? If you did, and you think others would too, I’d really appreciate it if you shared it using one of the share buttons on this post.

Thank you ;)

Update: Since this interview, I’ve found possibly the first reference to vaping – made in 1981! Click here for the full story. 

Also see: Electronic Cigarettes – A Timeline | Other E-Cigarette Interviews

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19 Responses to “An Interview with the Inventor of the Electronic Cigarette, Herbert A Gilbert”

  1. Switchtoecig October 2, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    James, well done and this is great news!
    I’m so glad that Mr.Gilbert is doing fine.

    Reading the interview and looking at the pictures I thought of my father: in this old picture Mr.GIlbert looks much like my Dad from his young photos.

    And I can’t help thinking how unjustly the powers-to-be swept Mr.Gilbert’s invention under the carpet and kept it there for so long. I already wrote, but I’ll write it again – had this invention been given deserving attention and funds for further development then, many people would have been alive today.
    Including my father.

    I can say that because I know the man – He would have embraced the new invention. And it would have given him more time among us.

    Mr.Gilbert, if you are reading this, Sir, I wish to say a big thank you from all of us here in the house! We wish you a long and prosperous life!

    Ljubica from Croatia

    • Herbert A. Gilbert October 2, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

      Thanks…appreciate your comments…

      Herb

  2. James October 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    What a nice comment – I’ve sent the post to Herbert, so hopefully he will see it!

  3. paul October 2, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

    Good for you, you are a legend HG. 25 year smoker and I switched immediately (and that was 2 years ago). Let’s hope corrupted people don’t stop this success getting to other people.

    • Herbert A. Gilbert October 2, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

      Thanks…hard to think of myself as a legend…but I will try.

      Herb

      • Arnie H October 2, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

        Mr. Gilbert, check out this thread on ECF:

        http://www.e-cigarette-forum.com/forum/general-e-smoking-discussion/453616-honor-mr-gilbert-thank-you-thread.html

        And thanks for all you have done.

        • Herbert A. Gilbert October 3, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

          What a nice gesture…appreciate those who sign in to honor me. If someone tells you that you saved their life you can understand it…but when you are told that what you started has saved over six million lives…I still cannot comprehend it.
          You are among the first to respond and probably the last that I will have the time to thank personally…so…please thank those who sign in on my behalf.
          I have bookmarked your site and will keep viewing it.

          Herb

  4. Matthew Doran October 2, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

    Great story!

  5. Bill Parker October 2, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

    Thanks to vaping I quit smoking after 25 years and I feel better. I have more energy in general. I love Scuba diving and I used to have frequent ear infections (due to diving+smoking) that would stop me from diving. The ear infections have gone away. I can walk and run faster and farther now. I out perform people in the 20s now. I sleep better. I can stay until the end of a movie and see the credits now instead of running out because I needed a smoke. I can taste and smell better. Switching to vaping has improved my quality of life!

  6. Julie N October 8, 2013 at 11:24 pm #

    Dear Mr Gilbert, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your initial creative idea and the work you did that led to today’s e-cigarettes. I’m now a ‘vaper’ and finally am free of the tobacco smoking that blighted my life on-and-off for over 20 years from the age of 19. I’ve even converted two friends. So that’s at least 3 lives you’ve helped to be longer and healthier, and there are now millions more globally! Here in the UK vaping is becoming more popular, and is even predicted to overtake tobacco smoking in another decade. Thank you, Thank you – Julie N in England

    • Herbert A. Gilbert October 9, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

      JULIE,

      Thank you for helping your friends and I am glad that you are off of tobacco. Thank you for spreading the word. There is a lot of satisfaction in saving lives. Stay well.

      Herb

  7. Herbert A. Gilbert January 15, 2014 at 2:12 am #

    THANKS TO ALL WHO READ AND FORWARD THIS…THE MORE PEOPLE WHO UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CIGARETTES AND ELECTRIC CIGARETTE SUBSTITUTES, THE MORE LIVES THAT WILL BE SAVED…AND YOU WILL HAVE HELPED TO DO IT…

    HERBERT A. GILBERT

  8. Herbert A. Gilbert February 8, 2014 at 8:41 pm #

    I STILL ENJOY READING THE RESPONSES TO THIS INTERVIEW…I HAVE VISITED IT OFTEN AND HOPE THAT EVENTUALLY IT WILL GO VIRAL AND HELP TO GET THE MESSAGE OUT TO THOSE WHO STILL DO NOT UNDERSTAND HOW IT WORKS AND NEED TO BE HELPED. EVERY TIME THIS GETS FORWARDED, THE ODDS ARE THAT MORE LIVES WILL BE SAVED, AND WHOEVER SENT IT ALONG IS ENTITLED TO SHARE IN THE FANTASTIC SATISFACTION YOU FEEL FOR EACH LIFE YOU HELPED TO SAVE. THANKS AGAIN TO YOU JAMES AND THOSE YOU HAVE HELPED…
    YOUR FRIEND, HERB

  9. christine kuemper March 2, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    Thank You. I quit smoking after 25 years only because of the vapor cigerette.. Thank You so much..I was waking up coughing… and every time I would lite up a smoke almost two packs a day…I knew I had to quit but no will power for that strong nicotine addiction..then one day decided to switch to electric cigerette..No more bad side effects..coughing has stopped with in three days…no bad odor on me or in my clothes ..my car.etc..I believe you saved my life…wish they were around years ago ……What really is upsetting is the Goverment banning them from public places…let those organization find a better more productive campaign.. go after texting and driving..that is killing more people today..smokeless tobacco is saving hundreds and hundreds of lives…yes the Goverment is losing money on taxes..yes and all the people who die from smoking…don’t pay taxes when they die ….thank you thank you for the best invention since electricity……. Sincerely Christine Kuemper

    • Herbert A. Gilbert March 2, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

      THANK YOU CHRISTINE…

      EVERY TIME I HEAR SOMEONE SAY THAT WHAT I INVENTED 50 YEARS AGO HAS
      HELPED TO SAVE THEM I GET A VERY STRONG FEELING OF SATISFACTION…AND
      WHEN PEOPLE YOU HAVE EXPLAINED HOW ECIGS SAVED YOU TELL YOU THAT BECAUSE OF WHAT YOU TOLD THEM THEIR LIVES ARE BETTER OR SAVED YOU WILL FIND OUT EXACTLY WHAT I MEAN. SO THANK THE LORD YOU ARE OK AND KEEP SPREADING THE TRUTH AND HELPING PEOPLE…

      CHEERS,

      HERB

      • Kim domingue April 21, 2014 at 3:37 am #

        Dear Mr. Gilbert, I am sure your sense of satisfaction will continue to increase as I am absolutely positive that more and more smokers will become ex-smokers with the help of your “logical” invention. I can say this with a great deal of assurance as I am one of those ex-smokers. As is my best friend. And one of her good friends. Between the three of us, we have smoked for a total of, approximately, one hundred and eight years. Within nine days of purchasing a vaping device, all three of us had quit smoking tobacco products. What is even more amazing is that, of the three of us, I was the only one who took up vaping with the intention of giving up smoking. And I did! And the other two? They laid down the cigarettes before I did! We are smoke free! We can breathe again. No more smoker’s cough. No more gasping for breath after carrying in the groceries. Our complexions are “pinking” back up again and we no longer have that ugly, oxygen starved look to our skin. We smell nice again instead of smelling like a dirty ashtray. Our stamina is improving. And, an unlooked for bonus, our singing voices are coming back! We all love to sing and had all but quit because we’d lost most of our range. How wonderful it is to open my mouth and have something lovely come out instead of a crow’s croak!
        We are so enthusiastic about vaping and being freed from our tobacco addiction that we will talk to anyone who asks us about vaping and the benefits we feel we have derived from it. We offer advice, encouragement and recommendations to anyone who wants it. I have even offered people my device so they can try it to see what it’s like. And then I give them directions to my favorite vape store!
        If I can help even one person to switch from tobacco cigarettes to vaping then I will feel that I have paid forward the amazing gift that I received from a man who took “the next logical step”. Thank you, Mr. Gilbert. Every time I sing “Rocky Mountain High” and marvel that I can hit ALL the notes, I shall think of you…… and grin like a humongously happy, vaping fool!

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