The origins of the electronic cigarette are seemingly clouded in a cloud of vapour – e-cigs are smoke-free – and many people, even those who ‘vape’ – ‘vapers’ as they’re increasingly known – have little idea about the origins of the electronic device which makes delivering nicotine to the bloodstream much less dangerous to their health and those around them.
Herbert A. Gilbert and the predecessor to the electronic cigarette
1963 – an astonishing 51 years ago – was the year in which American inventor Herbert A. Gilbert patented a cigarette-like device that’s widely considered to be the predecessor to the electronic cigarette.
Gilbert’s invention and subsequent patent involved replacing burning tobacco – tobacco contains over 4000 chemicals when burned including 599 chemicals that the US Government has approved for use in the production of tobacco cigarettes – and paper with a mixture that when heated takes on a form that’s been described as flavoured, slightly moist air.
Whilst the hapless inventor was approached in 1967 by several companies that were interested in his invention, Gilbert’s invention, although revolutionary, was perhaps too revolutionary for its time and as a result it was never commercialised.
Moreover, all records of his invention disappeared from public records after this year and would likely have remained forever invisible from history had it not been for the ‘electronic cigarette revolution’ that has taken place around the world.
As a direct result of his invention’s failing to be commercialised, the world was forced to endure another forty years without an alternative to deadly tobacco cigarettes; ‘coffin nails’ as they’re often called.
Herbert’s invention is still overlooked to this day though it’s important to recognise his efforts in attempting to provide the world with a viable alternative to tobacco cigarettes which are responsible for the deaths of millions of people on an annual basis.
Hon Lik – The inventor of the electronic cigarette
2003 was the year in which the electronic cigarette was born because this was the year in which a Chinese pharmacist by the name of Hon Lik invented the device that we know today as the electronic cigarette or e-cig.
Hon Lik’s revolutionary invention can be described as, in somewhat scientific terms that are likely to be incomprehensible to anyone without a scientific degree, a piezoelectric ultrasound-emitting element that vaporises a solution containing nicotine and propylene glycol.
Whilst Hon Lik was responsible for one of the most revolutionary inventions in recent years, one that has the potential to save hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives, he has publicly complained that he has seen little in the way of financial rewards for his invention.
However, the inventor of the electronic cigarette is hopeful that one day he’ll receive the recognition that he, and many people around the world, believe is owed to him. “My fame will follow the development of the e-cigarette industry. Maybe in 20 or 30 years I will be very famous,” says the 57-year-old Hon Lik, the father of the electronic cigarette who himself lost a loved one, his father, to a smoking related illness.
The commercialisation of the electronic cigarette
Hon Lik was and still is employed by the company Ruyan – Ruyan translates to ‘like smoke’ in Mandarin – which changed its name from Golden Dragon Holdings to capitalise upon the potential that was instantly recognised in Lik’s invention.
It took a little over two years before Ruyan was in the position to start exporting electronic cigarettes and surprisingly, given the profitability and lucrative nature of the e-cig, it didn’t receive its first international patent until 2007.
The commercialisation and popularisation of the electronic cigarette can’t completely be attributed to Hon Lik and Ruyan because the invention continued to evolve into the electronic cigarettes we know today.
British entrepreneurs Tariq and Umer Sheikh are credited with inventing the ‘cartomiser’, which is the mechanism that enables a heating coil to be integrated into the chamber containing the nicotine and propylene glycol solution.
The cartomiser has been adopted by the majority of electronic cigarette brands and the UK patent was awarded to XL Distributors – Tariq and Umer Sheikh’s company –in 2013.
Electronic cigarettes have a rather short yet interesting history, one that’s undoubtedly changed the lives of millions for the better.
Barbara Simms is writing freelance for a company boasting of having a market-leading range of e-cigarettes and accessories. NYK is a reputable provider of electronic cigarettes in the UK. Their website, nykecigs.com, provides great details about their products.