The history of vape hardware is exceptionally fascinating, filled with unique innovative people and their lateral ideas.
Most common stories about the origin of the e-cigarette begin with Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist and lifelong nicotine addict who started developing the idea for an electronic cigarette in 2000, finally patenting and producing what became known as the Ruyan in 2003.
The aim was to use hot aerosolised nicotine vapour to replace smoking and ultimately help him kick a life-long habit. Whilst Dr Hon himself was unsuccessful, his invention has helped many longtime smokers quit.
This is a noble, fascinating and important story. However, it is far from the full story, as the concept of an e-cigarette, and even the word “vaping” can be traced back decades further than Dr Hon.
Here are the stories of the forgotten innovators that made the modern vape possible.
Invented Too Soon
Nearly a century ago, the first-ever patent for an electronic cigarette was filed by the American inventor Joseph Robinson in 1927.
His “Electric Vaporizer” was not actually initially patented as a smoking tool, however, but instead for holding and heating medicinal compounds that needed to be taken as a vapour. Similar patents were applied for in 1934 and 1936 as well.
However, there is no evidence that any of these products went to market, and even if they had they faced the challenge of being released during a peak in popularity for tobacco smoking and nearly two decades before the Doll and Hill paper and the slow realisation of the harm of cigarettes.
Because of this, these innovative ideas remained simply plans on a patent document, leading many of us to wonder what could have been had their ideas been realised and the dangers of smoking been better known.
The Smokeless Non-Tobacco Cigarette
The earliest links between smoking and cancer were reported in the 1890s, and by the 1930s, what had been dismissed as coincidence or circumstance was being seriously studied as a trend, especially in Weimar and later Nazi Germany, where smoking would be condemned until the regime’s fall in 1945.
The link was all but confirmed in a case-control study in 1940, but due to the huge popularity of smoking and the power of the tobacco industry, the paper did not mention this cause.
However, by 1950, two papers, one by Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill and another by Ernest Wynder and Evarts Graham, laid bare the extreme dangers of smoking, with the Doll and Hill paper reporting that heavy smokers were 50 times more likely to get lung cancer than people who did not smoke.
Herbert A Gilbert, another American inventor, developed the smokeless non-tobacco cigarette, which very closely resembled both in design and in action Dr Hon’s later modern electronic cigarette, with the tobacco smoke replaced with flavoured steam.
Sadly, even by 1965, the popularity of smoking (to the point that even cartoon stone-age family The Flintstones were selling cigarettes) meant that the invention was sadly ignored.
The Invention Of Vaping
The term “vaping” was actually invented in 1986 by Brenda Coffee, the wife of the inventor of Favor, a cigarette alternative that was essentially a filter paper soaked with nicotine that was inhaled.
Whilst not technically an electronic cigarette, it is an essential part of the story as it led to the Food and Drug Administration developing rules to legislate e-cigarettes, which in turn caused American Tobacco Products to simply discontinue Favor.
Whilst Philip Morris would develop an e-cigarette throughout the 1990s, it would take the success of Dr Hon’s invention to finally take a century-old idea mainstream.