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The History of the Electronic Cigarette: It goes back further than you think…

The History and Origins of E-Cigarettes and Vaping

Ask most vapers about the history of e-cigarettes, and they’ll tell you it began in China, not much more than ten years ago. So let’s start there…

Like most men in China, Hon Lik was a smoker. He’d get through two or three packs per day, but he knew that one day, it could kill him.

Then disaster struck.

Hon’s father – also a smoker – was diagnosed with the disease all smokers fear.

Lung cancer.

Hon was devastated, and as a heavy smoker himself, the news hit home in more ways than one.

But he was a scientist, and he realised one important thing. People smoke for the nicotine, but die from the tar. Little did he know, he was on the verge of a breakthrough that would change the lives of smokers all around the world.

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

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. 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

This early smokeless cigarette offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of the e-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.

When we interviewed Herbert, he told us that it realising combustion was the problem lead to his Eureka moment:

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.

He continued:

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!

This line of reasoning led him to design a new device; a device through which you could inhale warm, tobacco flavoured air.

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

A patent by Herbert A Gilbert for the smokeless cigarette.

His patent for the invention gives a detailed description of how it works. The most striking thing is that despite some clear differences, the key components of Gilbert’s invention are the same as the vaping devices we use today.

His design is especially similar to cigalikes, with a similar appearance to a traditional cigarette: a long body, a battery, a heat source and a flavour cartridge. The patent also mentions that the cartridge would be filled with a moisture-holding substance, like the wicks in modern e-cigs.

These key components are really present in any e-cigarette. But the layout and the fact that the cartridge is replaced when it’s finished makes cigalikes the best comparison.

But there are many differences between Gilbert’s e-cig and the devices we use today. The biggest and most obvious is the fact that it was originally intended to be nicotine free, and it also didn’t produce vapour like the e-cigs we use today.

It worked by drawing air in through the tip, which passed over a heat source before reaching the flavour cartridge. The heat source was described broadly as a “suitable heating source,” but a bulb was suggested specifically by Gilbert. Once the air had been heated by the bulb, it would pick up the flavour and be inhaled through the mouthpiece by the user.

There were also some other, smaller differences.

For example, the battery was originally intended to be replaceable, but this isn’t necessary in the modern age with widespread, affordable rechargeable vape batteries.

Gilbert made prototypes of his e-cig, too:

“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.”

Unfortunately, though, for the smokers of the 1960s and for our exploration of vape-history, these prototypes were lost in a warehouse fire. Gilbert is back in the field, though, working with the 1963 brand of e-cig, which was named after the year of his invention.

You can read our full interview with Herbert A. Gilbert here.

First Reference to Vaping

Given that “vape” was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2014, you might be surprised to learn that the history of the words “vaping” and “vaper” go back as 1981, or possibly even earlier.

The terms was invented by a man named Phil Ray, who is best known as the father of the microprocessor, and also managed the Apollo program.

He was a smoker, but had a good understanding of the risks of smoking and where they come from. He considered what would happen if you just inhaled the nicotine without all the other stuff in smoke.

Ray has sadly passed away, but we interviewed Dr. Norman L. Jacobson about Ray’s device, how it worked and what happened to it.

Jacobson had run a trial on the concept, and found pretty positive results, which he presented at a conference in 1979. The opening to his talk really drives home the similarities between Ray’s concept and the key idea behind the modern e-cigarette:

If nicotine is truly addicting and if tar, carbon monoxide and other by-products of smoking are injurious to health, then obviously, it would be beneficial to develop a cigarette which supplies nicotine, but eliminates the other toxic ingredients. Numerous efforts to deliver nicotine only through other vehicles including nicotine tablets, injections, aerosols and gum have been partially successful, but have been found impractical or unsatisfying.

The device had some similarities to the modern e-cigarette, but it didn’t work in the same way. In fact, it wasn’t electronic at all. The cigarette-like tube was still a key component, and this time there was a cartridge with nicotine, but that’s where the similarities end.

The nicotine-containing liquid is soaked into paper, and users inhale from the end (without heating or anything of the sort) to release some of it. This means there was no vapour, and – at least from existing descriptions and our interview – it seems flavour wasn’t a particular concern either. It’s a lot more like Nicorette Inhalators than modern e-cigarettes, but there are still many similarities.

Dr. Jacobson’s trial was immensely successful. The details are all in the transcript of his presentation, but the short version is that the levels of carbon monoxide in the users’ blood reduced dramatically (to levels usually seen in non-smokers), they consumed a little less nicotine, and they smoked a lot less or quit entirely.

It was only a small, preliminary study, but it’s all very reminiscent of the things we see in studies of vapers today.

For vapers, an interesting bit of history trivia is that this was the first time the words vaping and vapers were used to describe the use of the device. As Jacobson said in his original presentation:

To simplify description, we will hereafter refer to nicotine vapour inhalation through a [non-combustible cigarette] as vaping and people who inhale nicotine vapour as vapers.

The device was released under the name Favor (with the tagline “do yourself a favour!”), and it was commercially available for a year or two. However, they ran into problems pretty quickly.

One was that pure nicotine evaporates easily, so the shelf-life of the cartridges was too short to make it a practical alternative to smoking.

Also, the level of cotinine (which nicotine degrades into) increases over time, and this creates a bitter taste. They toyed with the idea of keeping it all refrigerated, but the device was soon sold off to a Swedish company, who ended up turning the technology into a nicotine nasal spray.

One final interesting point is that the FDA declared Favor to be a “new drug” and effectively banned it unless the company submitted the product for FDA approval. This was accompanied by a lot of the same tired arguments we see today, and Jacobson commented when we spoke to him:

I follow this with a bit of humour, we were involved in the front end before, we’ve seen this happening. They’re addressing a lot of the same subjects we addressed 35 years ago.

To avoid derailing this vape-history lesson, we won’t go into this aspect here, but you can read the full interview with Dr. Jacobson here if you’re interested.

And you can also click here for the full story of Favor.

Big Tobacco and Early Safe Cigarettes

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

One such effort was known as Project XA, operated by an American tobacco company called the Ligget Group. The project was spearheaded by Dr. James D. Mold, who was the company’s assistant research director from the mid-fifties until he resigned in 1979. Ligget spent over $14 million on this project, which went on for 20 years.

He was hired shortly after Dr. Ernest L. Wydner had found that tar from condensed smoke caused cancer in mice when it was painted on their backs. His task was to work out what in the smoke was causing the cancer, and to develop a safer cigarette.

Dr. Mold found that adding palladium and magnesium nitrate to tobacco stopped the tumours from developing in up to 100 % of cases. If it worked in human smokers, it could have been a game-changer.

But Mold’s project was eventually crushed due to pressure from the legal team.

They were worried that marketing a “safer cigarette” would be like admitting that ordinary cigarettes weren’t safe. When they patented the palladium cigarette idea, the press did what the lawyers had feared, claiming the company had acknowledged that cigarettes cause cancer. They quickly denied the claims, stating:

“It has never been established that smoking is a cause of human cancer.”

It’s safe to say that this comment hasn’t aged well. But they were pushing doubt about the science, and any effort to solve the problem just looked too much like admitting they were lying. So the palladium cigarette was never released.

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 aerosolise tobacco contained in aluminium capsules.

Once again, the lack of combustion meant that most of the harm of smoking was removed.

But there were three problems:

The company then tried the Eclipse cigarette, which gives off vapour rather than smoke. This worked by heating tobacco rather than burning it, using a carbon tip and tobacco mixed with VG. This wasn’t successful, though, and after trying to re-brand it as the Revo, they gave up on the idea.

The Dream That Lead to the E-Cigarette

Drowning in a deep blue sea - the dream that lead to the invention of the modern e-cigarette.
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.

As a smoker of between two to three packs a day, and after his father developed lung cancer, he was ready to quit. Like so many smokers, he turned to nicotine patches for help.

Still having difficulty quitting, and after a night of coughing and spluttering, Hon Lik finally fell asleep. But he’d forgotten to remove his nicotine patch. As many patch-users can attest, this can lead to vivid dreams.

In his nicotine-induced 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 🙂

Hon realised that vaporisation was the important part of the dream. His experience struggling to quit with patches had shown him that gradual, consistent delivery of nicotine wasn’t enough. He worked out that if the nicotine was vaporised, it would meet his cravings in a more cigarette-like fashion.

After the breakthrough, he started working on the first prototype of the modern e-cigarette. He may have originally used ultrasound technology to vaporize the liquid, but soon the e-cigarette found the form we know today. He founded a company, Ruyan – which means “like smoke” – and got his idea on the market. He couldn’t have known he’d just spawned a worldwide phenomenon.

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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