Herbert A. Gilbert graduated from college with a BA in Business, but went to work at his father’s scrapyard in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvannia. Now in his 80s, Gilbert described himself in an interview with the UK’s E-Cigarette Direct as a “logical guy”. He says it’s that logic that led him to see that inhaling smoke was far from desirable and to come up with a solution.
“For example,” he said “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 want going into your lungs.”
He went on to explain that the problem goes away if there is no combustion.
According to his patent the object of the invention was to provide a smokeless non-tobacco cigarette “in which provision is made for circulating the fluid around the heating element in a turbulent manner to suitably raise the temperature of the inhalant mixture, with the purpose that the temperature of the flavoured air may approximate that of cigarette smoke.”
The problem for Gilbert was that while he managed to build a prototype of his device that worked, no one was ready for e-cigs. In the 1960s you still had doctors recommending patients smoke cigarettes and the patent expired before it could go into production.
Gilbert told E-Cigarette Direct:
“Those I showed it to could have done it but they chose to wait for the patent to expire and then filed their own versions. I showed it to chemical companies, pharmaceutical companies and tobacco companies and they did what they did to try to protect their markets … timing can be everything and I was ahead of my time, and in the midst of what some might say was the most powerful advertising period of big tobacco.”
The term “vaping” first used in the ‘70s
The next attempt to come up with a smokeless cigarette was also in the US in the late 1970s, early ‘80s.
Computer entrepreneur, J Phillip Ray came up with a plastic device that replicated the look of a cigarette. Inside it contained a filter soaked in nicotine that the user would inhale.
Dr Norman Jacobson ran trials on the device, describing its use as “vaping” and referring to people who used them as “vapers”.
It received a fair bit of press at the time as an effective way to give up cigarettes. According to Dr Jacobson, the device was under production and was introduced to a number of large grocery chains in the Western United States. However, unfortunately the product was ultimately shown to be defective.
Dr Jacobson said the nicotine would become rather bitter tasting and had a very short shelf life. They eventually sold the technology to Upjon in Sweden who ended up using it to make a nasal spray.
The birth of the modern electronic cigarette
It was not until 2003 that a device that is a lot closer to the ones we currently use was developed.
A couple of years before that Hon Lik was working as a chemist at the Liaoning Provincial Institute of Traditional Chinese medicine and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. According to Hon Lik he wanted to quit but had failed going cold turkey several times. Hon Lik says the nicotine patches he was using gave him nightmares when he would forget to take it off at night. In one of his dreams Hon said he was drowning and struggling to breathe when the water turned into a cloud of vapour. This gave him the inspiration for a product which he scribbled down on a notepad on his bedside.
Hon Lik filed the first patent in 2003 in China with the first devices manufactured that year in Beijing. Hon Lik’s invention consisted of a battery, a plastic cartridge containing a nicotine solution suspended in propylene glycol and an ultrasonic atomiser.
Lik went on to be the co-founder of Dragonite International, now called Ruyan, which means “like smoke”.
In May of 2004, Ruyan launched a cigar-series which they sold in China. In October that year they launched the e-pipe series. The “V8” Model, which looks more like a traditional cigarette, became their key product in 2007.
The difference between the e-cigarettes sold today and the one developed by Hon Lik back in 2003 is that the current devices use simpler battery powered heating elements that heat a liquid to water vapour as opposed to the ultrasonic technology patented by Ruyan. These days there are countless e-liquid flavours and improved atomisers (or coils) with temperature control mods, high wattage devices and even ceramic coils that no longer need to use cotton.
With constant improvements in the devices, in a relatively short time the electronic cigarette world has grown into a huge market that will no doubt keep on developing as more and more people look to replace smoking. In fact, according to PR News Wire, the global e-cigarette market is expected to grow over $50 billion by 2025 with predictions of huge growth until 2017. It will be interesting to see what developers come up with next.