The History of the Electronic Cigarette or How the devastated son of a lung cancer victim dreamed up a device which would save the lives of millions of smokers

Or: The History of the Electronic Cigarette

The e-cigarette as we know it may never have existed if a Chinese man had not been struck by the disease all smokers fear.

Lung cancer.

His devastated son, Hon Lik, was a heavy smoker too, and feeling the effects of smoking 60 cigarettes a day. He was also a scientist, and knew that 99% of the problem of smoking was not caused by nicotine, but by burning tobacco.

The answer, Hon Lik claimed, came to him in a dream…

But I am getting beyond myself. For some vapers, as we e-cig users like to call ourselves, think the history of the e-cig started earlier.

Much Earlier…

The First Battery Powered Cigarette


The first battery powered smokeless cigarette. In 1958 a Philip Morris executive said:

I’ll bet that the first company to produce a cigarette claiming a substantial reduction in tars and nicotine . . .will take the market.

And one scientist, a Herbert A. Gilbert, obviously thought so too.

He designed a device through which you could inhale warm, tobacco flavoured air.

A patent by Herbert A Gilbert for the smokeless cigarette.

Crucially, there would be no combustion – unfortunately, there would also be no nicotine.

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

Update: Herbert did indeed contact us, and you can read our interview with him here.

First Reference to Vaping

In 1981 we see the first reference to vaping, although the term may well have been used before that.

Dr Norman L Jacobson presented a little known trial of fake cigarette. The trial was immensely successful, and for the first time the words vaping and vapers were used to describe the use of the device.

Click here for the full story or here to read our interview with Dr Norman Jacobson.

Big Tobacco

Meanwhile big tobacco companies, while denying cigarettes could cause lung cancer, were spending billions in the search for a safer cigarette.

Incredibly, the Ligget Group developed a compound which may have been able to neutralise the damage of cigarettes:

 skin painting tests related to the XA Project showed that cancerous tumors were virtually eliminated when the catalyst was added to tobacco

The company was forced to shelve its project by large tobacco companies on the basis that, if a solution existed, it meant admitting that tobacco was harmful.

But RJR was working on its own solution…

The Premier Electronic Cigarette

The premier e cigarette.

The company spent several years and more than a billion dollars (in a time when a billion dollars was worth a lot more than it is now) developing a cigarette which would heat and aerolize tobacco capsules.

Once again, the lack of combustion would mean the harm of smoking was removed.

But there were three problems:

The company continues to market the Eclipse cigarette, which gives off vapour rather than smoke.

The Dream That Lead to the E-Cigarette

Drowning in a deep blue sea.
Hon Lik dreamt that he was drowning in a deep sea.

Hon Lik claims it was a dream that lead to the invention of the e-cigarette.

After a night of coughing and spluttering, Hon Lik finally fell asleep, only to dream he was drowning in a deep sea.

Suddenly the sea vaporised, and Hon Lik found himself floating in a bright and colourful fog.

Whether the dream is true or false, it makes a good story 🙂

Unfortunately, it was too late to save Hon Lik’s father, although the old man did get to try the electronic cigarette before he died.

Further reading

Here are some more links on the history of the e-cigarette:

Safer Cigarettes: A History (
The History of the Electronic Cigarette (Guide to Vaping)
The Invention of the Smokeless Non Tobacco Cigarette (

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