Who came up with the idea of an electronic cigarette?

I was thinking this week about how long I have been vaping and how hard it was for me to find a supplier of an electronic cigarette. To be honest I can’t even remember how or where I first saw them and began to consider the idea of using one instead of smoking.

I know that most of the electronic cigarettes we buy are imported from manufacturers in China but who was it that first thought of the idea of finding a way to smoke without actually smoking? Was its development led by the fact that smoking bans meant that we had all begun to huddle outside at ‘smokers corner’, banished forever out into the cold? Or, did someone come up with this decades before but find it was something that just never caught on?

The internet is a beautiful tool, not just for ordering your e-cig and vaping supplies and for keeping up with friends lives via social media, but for information gathering and research too.

Here’s what I found out.

Herbert A. Gilbert: Patent

Apparently a Korean war veteran names Herbert A. Gilbert from Pensylvania USA applied for a patent in 1963 for a Smokeless Non Tobacco Cigarette. Using the technology available back in the early 60’s, he quickly concluded that a battery would be a suitable power source to heat the liquid nicotine.

But wait, why or how did he come up with the idea of heating liquid nicotine in the first place? In an interview he reportedly admits t having been a 2 packs a day man but was burring leaves in his garden and considering how awful it was to breathe in the smoke and fumes. During his thinking he considered the fact that eating lettuce was good for you, cinnamon is nice and is essentially made from dried laurel bark. As this series of thoughts filtered through his logical mind he considered the fact that if you set alight to those ingredients, again you wouldn't want to breathe in that smoke either. He then considered another leaf commonly used, tea. Tea is dried but is steeped in water and this then becomes something aromatic and enjoyable and Herbert says this was his eureka moment when he realised that if you could stop burning the tobacco and instead took it steamed you could enjoy the nicotine and aroma but not inhale the smoke and fumes. It was at this moment that his ideas began to take shape and he set about building prototypes.

In fact when you look at our modern day electronic cigarette design and compare it to those in Mr Gilbert’s patent submission you can easily see that there is no electric cigarette today, that does not follow the original basic ‘road map’.

Mr Gilbert reportedly showed his prototypes to did not take him up on his offer of business partnerships but apparently instead they chose to wait for his patent to expire and then filed their own versions. Mr Gilbert goes on to say how he had shown his prototypes to chemical companies, pharmaceutical companies and tobacco companies but that they did what they did in order to try to protect their own businesses and markets. It makes me cringe really how callous a business mind has to be in order to do this and feel sanded that Herbert A. Gilbert’s electronic cigarette did not go into production all those years ago.

How many inventions must there have been, and must still be, that could and can have benefits for people and that are lost to us through business ‘savvy’ and greed? Mr Gilbert was ahead of his time that’s for sure. Perhaps it was because smoking was so well accepted and was even fashionable at the time…. but it is certain that his idea and design fell on the ears of a deaf audience. An advert in the December issue of a ‘Popular Mechanics’ magazine in 1965 claimed that the device even had the potential to deliver medicine. Herbert’s idea and design simply lay forgotten by time.

You can see the details of Herbert A. Gilbert’s original patent here: Herbert A. Gilbert: Patent

So, having moved on from the swinging sixties my research goes further and reveals that a lost 4 decades later, at the turn on the new millennium, a Chinese pharmacist and inventor by the name of Hon Lik came up with his new idea. Now, there seems to be some discrepancy over how it all happened, some say it was as a reaction to his father’s diagnosis of lung cancer and another story says that Hon Lik himself was wheezing and asthmatic, himself a heavy smoker, and that his idea came to him in a dream… Whichever story is right or, if perhaps both are right, Hon Lik was a man of science and he knew that the bad effects and diseases of smoking were not caused by the nicotine itself, but from the burning fumes and tobacco smoke inhaled.

In early 2003 then, Hon Lik having honed his ideas over the interim 3 years, built his first generation of electronic cigarette. Soon after this the first electronic cigarette was registered by the Beijing-based SBT Co. Ltd for whom Lik worked. It was a company that at the time was controlled by the Golden Dragon Group Ltd, a company that later changed its name to “Ruyan”, which means "like smoke” or “resembling smoke”.

The Chinese market took to these new devices which were marketed as an aid to smoking cessation. Within a year or so electronic cigarettes were being made in their thousands and exported to Europe and the US where its growing popularity began to worry the big cigarette and tobacco companies who saw their profits begin to fall. Of course, over time they too began to develop and market their own electronic cigarettes.

The design of the modern day electronic cigarette continues to evolve. It was in 2006 that British inventors and entrepreneurs, Umer and Tariq Sheikh of XL Distributors came up with the first ‘Cartomizer’. This advancement allowed for the coil and tank to become one unit. Their new cartomizer device was launched in the UK in 2007 under their brand Gamucci and it is this design that has now become so widely adopted by 'cigalike' models. The grant of the UK patent of the "cartomizer" was made to XL Distributors in February 2013 and was in turn published by the UK Intellectual Property Office.

Smoking bans and new laws limiting the places where people could smoke provided a perfect climate and only fuelled that rise in popularity of the electronic cigarette. The time had arrived for an electronic cigarette revolution to take place!

People like you and I were by now taking more and more interest in being able to use electronic cigarettes as an alternative to smoking tobacco. Be it because you did not want to huddle on smokers corner, or you wanted to save money or choose a healthier alternative whilst still enjoying the experience of smoking. At first we could only buy these devices online through retailers who, like Exhale, who were willing to take the leap of faith and were savvy enough to open their own stores. As time has progressed many well known retailers have now begun to stock electric cigarettes in their high street stores and additionally we have witnesses the new opening of many dedicated vaping stores arriving on our high streets.

An interview with Herbert A. Gilbert which was published online in October 2013 by blogger James Dunworth and through which I found much of the information included in my article can be seen in full at the Ashtray blog here: An Interview with Herbert A. Gilbert by James Dunworth

12th May 2014 Dionne

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