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Published on March 30th, 2018 | by Guest

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The Debt Owed: A Brief History of Vaping Technology

Vaping, contrary to popular belief is not some new-fangled trend. There is a concise and colorful history of vaping and the e-cigarette. Only, it’s difficult to pinpoint where the history of vaping and e-cigs begins. E-cigarettes are not like the traditional forms of smoking or vaping.

We don’t want to go too far back. Some topics deserve their own history. The invention and use of the hookah in ancient Persia, for example, is a topic unto itself. So is the cultivation and use of tobacco in parts of  South America.

The best starting point would be Herbert A. Gilbert. Gilbert was a young, Korean War veteran working in his father’s scrap yard and he had a problem. He wanted to keep the smoke from burning leaves from wafting over to his neighbor’s yard.

Not the Right Time

Herbert A. Gilbert was the first person to submit a patent for an electronic “smokeless” device. He was also a lover of logic. The patent Gilbert submitted in 1963 was the result of his search for the solution to a problem.

The young Gilbert had graduated with a B.A. in Business and was smoking two packs a day. But it was the smoke that would travel over to his neighbor’s yard that led him to invent the e-cigarette (find out more about e-cigs here).

Gilbert observed that everyday items, like leaves, bark, and wood, posed no harm on their own. But when the leaves and bark dried and were burnt, the resulting smoke would be noxious.

But applying heat wasn’t the problem. As Gilbert noted in an interview he gave in 2016, “they used heat in my aunt’s bakery … they didn’t burn it, they cooked it.”

This lead Gilbert to make a significant observation. An observation that later came to define the benefits of vaping over smoking. Gilbert realized, “to put it as simply as possible, the problem could not occur if there was no combustion. Eureka!”

On April 17, 1963, Gilbert submitted his patent for the “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette.” But, owing to the times he lived in, the Gilbert smokeless device failed to inspire action. It didn’t catch on, and everyone ignored the technology.

In the 1960s, smoking was still accepted as a social norm. Tobacco and cancer were not yet linked. The studies that proved the link came out only a few years before Gilbert submitted his patent.

But thanks to the efforts of the tobacco industry, the general public would remain in the dark. The public only became aware of smoking’s links to cancer in the late 1980s. The 80s is where our brief history of vaping takes us next.

The Invention of “Vaping”

In the 1980s, Dr. Norman Jacobson was treating a patient more remarkable than most. For one, this patient had a brief but illustrious resume. There were only two entries: 1) father of the microprocessor and 2) manager of the Apollo space program.

The patient was Phil Ray. He helped usher in the Space Age and the desktop computer. But Mr. Ray also helped develop the e-cigarette. He took Gilbert’s original idea of a combustion-free way to ingest nicotine and ran with it.

Ray was a smoker himself and well-aware of the dangers of smoking. Ray’s idea involved inhaling nicotine vapor through filter paper soaked in liquid nicotine.

The idea was low-tech one, especially for one of the inventors of the microchip! But with the help of Dr. Jacobson and others, the idea of an e-cigarette began to take form.

Only, there was no “e” in their original mock-ups of their e-cigarette. “It was not an electronic device,” said Jacobson in an interview he did in 2014.

There was also one crucial additive. The prototypes made by Gilbert eschewed nicotine altogether. Instead, Gilbert’s device produced “tobacco-flavored air.”

The Jacobson/Ray smokeless cigarette delivered a dose of nicotine to the user. Jacobson went on to describe at length what exactly their product consisted of:

There was no combustion involved. They looked like a cigarette, a piece of plastic, they were shaped like a cigarette, the tip was coloured like a cigarette, they were the colour of a cigarette and within the cigarette was filter paper which was soaked in nicotine. You inhaled it and got a dose of nicotine – no combustion, no smoke.

Reading that description, you can’t help but think of a cig-a-like. A cig-a-like aims to mimic the look and feel of a cigarette without the combustion. Jacobson and Ray later perfected their “smokeless” cigarette.

They then founded a company, American Tobacco Products Inc. and brought a product to market, the Favor – best tagline ever: “Do Yourself a Favor” – in the late 70s, early 80s.

Only they ran into some difficulties. For one, the FDA deemed the Favor a “new drug,” which made it a narcotic. So it could not be sold without FDA approval.

Second, the liquid nicotine-infused into the paper would go bad in only a few days of being on the shelf. The nicotine would turn into cotinine. Cotinine is a chemical that produces none of the effects of nicotine vapor and has a bitter taste.

Jacobson and Ray eventually sold their company. Today, very few people remember the Favor. But there is one invention credited to Jacobson that has withstood the test of time.

In their initial trial studies, Jacobson could not and did not want to use the word “smoking” and “smokers.” So he switched them out for two words he came up with himself, “vaping” and “vapers.”

From the Ashes

“My real passion, like many other inventors, is to leave some trace behind,” so said, Hon Lik in an interview back in 2015. Many people, the world over, recognize Hon Lik as the inventor of the modern e-cigarette.

It wasn’t only the desire to leave his mark on the world that propelled the Chinese pharmacist. Like all the other men mentioned here, Hon Lik was a heavy smoker; two packs a day, just like Herbert Gilbert.

Lik’s father was also a heavy smoker (two packs a day) and succumbed to lung cancer. After his father’s death, Lik was not only motivated to quit smoking. He also wanted to devise a way to ingest nicotine without having to rely on combustion.

It’s not clear whether Lik had any idea about Herbert Gilbert or his smokeless e-cigarette. But by some form of serendipity, the design that Lik came up with mirrored Gilbert’s schematics.

Lik’s innovation was to use a high-frequency piezoelectric element. The ultrasound caused a nicotine solution to vaporize. The user would then inhale the resultant vapor. A battery-powered heating element later replaced the high-frequency part.

Lik submitted a patent in 2003. E-cigarettes began hitting the Chinese market in 2004. They then made their way to Europe, the US and the rest of the world.

The Future is Bright

Today, vaping devices are myriad. Some of them are better described here. In only a dozen or so years since 2003 e-cigarettes have become a billion-dollar industry.

Vape companies built upon Lik’s (and Gilbert’s) design to create many iterations of the e-cigarette. But hobbyists and users were also involved in developing the e-cigarette. They began making modifications to their original e-cigarette or cig-a-likes.

Vape pens are what followed the initial e-cigarette or cig-a-like devices. And from there, manufacturers and users alike began to experiment with various formats. They toyed around with battery types, heating elements, and tank and atomizer systems.

“Mod” became the word to use instead of “battery.” Box mods came into style because they offered the user the ability to regulate their vape. E-juice or e-liquid became as important to vaping as any other component.

But liquid nicotine was not the only thing that you could vape. After recreational marijuana became legal in a few American states, the market exploded.

New forms of THC, like waxes and concentrates, began popping up. The hardware to vape these new materials worked much as e-liquid vaporizers did.

But all the new iterations of e-cigarettes owe a debt. Everything, from electronic cigars to box mods, came from people ushering along an idea. An idea that started with a guy who didn’t want his neighbors to inhale the smoke from his burning yard clippings.


About the Author:

Phyllis Baker is the blogger specializing in drugs rehab and addiction treatment. She manages public relations  for the quitting smoking community.

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