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Then and Now: A Vaping History

Despite what most people believe, vaping is not actually all that new. Indeed, it is true, the last decade has seen the industry grow and develop at its fastest, but this is only one point in what has been a long and interesting history! From an obscure patent filed in the late 1920s, to the Chinese “Father of Vaping” credited for inventing the first modern e-cigarette, all the way up to modern brands like EDGE Vaping. Join us as we explore the first steps in vaping’s interesting history.

Why were historical figures looking to create a nicotine alternative? 

Over 200 years ago, as early as 1798, contemporary healthcare professionals in the Americas were raising the issues around smoking and health. Dr Benjamin Rush as an exemplar, compiled essays purporting the collected experiences of several different users of tobacco, be it chewed, snuffed or smoked in a pipe or cigar. In these essays, he attempts to rationalise the symptoms the patients are experiencing by highlighting the link to their individual examples of tobacco use. 

“In considering the pernicious effects of Tobacco, I shall begin agreeably to the order I have laid down, by taking notice of its influence upon health; and here I shall mention its effects not only upon the body, but upon the mind."

1. It impairs the appetite. Where it does not produce this effect, it prevents the early and complete digestion of the food, and thereby induces distressing, and incurable diseases not only of the stomach, but of the whole body. This effect of tobacco is the result of the waste of the saliva in chewing, and smoking; or of the tobacco insinuating itself into the stomach, when used in chewing, or snuffing. I once lost a young man of 17 years of age, of pulmonary consumption, whose disorder was brought on by the intemperate use of cigars. 

2. It produces many of those diseases which are supposed to be seated in the nerves. Experts behind Vice Vapes can explain how these products don't contain harmful substances such as tobacco that might harm your body. The late Sir John Pringle was subject in the evening of his life to tremors [ataxia] in his hands. In his last visit to France [1770's], a few years before he died [1782], in company with Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin [1706-1790], he was requested by the doctor to observe that the same disorder was very common among those people of fashion who were great snuffers. Sir John was led by this remark to suspect that his tremors were occasioned by snuff which he took in large quantities. He immediately left off taking it, and soon afterwards recovered the perfect use of his hands. I have seen headache, vertigo, and epilepsy produced by the use of tobacco. A physician in Connecticut has remarked that it has in several instances produced palsy and apoplexy; and Dr. Tissot ascribes sudden death, in one instance, to the excessive use of it in smoking. 

3. A citizen of Philadelphia lost all his teeth by drawing the hot smoke of tobacco into his mouth by means of a short pipe, and I have been informed of a cancer on the lip, which terminated fatally from the same cause, in a farmer in Northumberland County in this state. The acrid nature of the [particulate] matter which is mixed with the smoke of the tobacco may easily be discovered by the taste or smell of a pipe stem that has been in use for two or three weeks. 

4. Tobacco when used in the form of snuff seldom fails of impairing the voice by obstructing the nose. It moreover imparts to the complexion a disagreeable dusky colour.” 

Despite the severe technological and scientific restrictions of the age and discounting the fact that in reality some of Rush’s observations were likely somewhat inaccurate when compared to modern rationalisations, many of the same health issues related to smoking were being raised in 1798 as they are now.

Enter, Joseph Robinson! 

From cancer to skin ageing and even a “pack-a-day-voice”, there were clearly those that recognised the value of an alternative method of nicotine consumption that might bypass these terrible side-effects; it would only be a matter of time before new technology and ways of thinking gave rise to the first e-cigarette concept. The concept patent was filed in 1927 and granted in 1930 to inventor Joseph Robinson, who intended this new device to be used for the inhalation of vapours and medical compounds without the risk of being burned. Despite its innovation for the age and the dramatic pace at which vaping would later rise to popularity, society was not yet broadly aware enough of the dangers of traditional smoking, and the potential benefits of exploring new options. As a result, Robinson’s concept never became a commercialised reality, and the patent expired, passing into relative obscurity by 1947. 

The risks of smoking inspired inventors to try vaping once again 

Despite the health concerns highlighted by doctors almost 100 years earlier, only by the mid-point of the 20th century were people beginning to change their attitudes towards smoking. A record 523 billion cigarettes were consumed by US citizens in 1963, the same year humble scrap metal dealer Herbert A. Gilbert invented the next generation of what we would call an e-cigarette. An aluminium cylinder he called “the smokeless”, was created only one year before the US Surgeon General would publish a landmark “Smoking and Health” report, which officially linked cigarettes to lung cancer and other diseases. The patent was filed in 1963 and approved in 1965; working prototypes were actually created, taking things one step further than Robinson’s rudimental attempt in 1930. Gilbert’s “smokeless” was far closer to modern examples of vaping tech. It contained a liquid that was warmed by battery power, creating a vapour that could then be inhaled. Gilbert promoted the device as an alternative that could help to prevent diseases from tobacco use and even assist with weight-loss. Bringing this early example even closer to modern vaping, Gilbert developed 10 individual flavours for the liquid, including cinnamon, mint and rum. Sadly, once again this innovation came before its time. The vaping industry would go on to become a multi-billion giant; however, Gilbert never made a penny from his patent. Being unable to find any commercial investors willing to mass-manufacture the device, the patent expired in 1982 only later being cited by Gilbert’s successors in vaping innovation as a source of inspiration.

Was inhaling pure nicotine successful? 

In the late 1970s inventor Phillip Ray, an early pioneer in the field of computing (fathering the microprocessor and managing the Apollo space program), was a heavy smoker, and he wondered if there could be a better, safer way to indulge the habit. He and his personal physician Dr Jacobson brought what would become known as the “Favor” from concept to commercialised reality, with a theory that inhaling pure nicotine could cleanly satisfy cravings. The pair undertook significant research to determine that the peripheral components of a cigarette were the cause of most of the health concerns associated with smoking, especially due to the burning of the leaf, with nicotine actually being the least harmful, aside from its highly addictive properties as an opioid. The results of their findings were published in scientific journals at the time and received recognition, leading to the development of their new alternative device. Unlike modern e-cigarettes, the Favor consisted of a plastic tube containing paper soaked in pure liquid nicotine, which upon inhaling through the device, gave the user a dose of nicotine without heating or burning and without the presence of any other ingredients beyond pure nicotine itself, with the intent of giving clean satisfaction to cravings. A primary issue with the Favor lay in the properties of pure nicotine. In its liquid form, nicotine evaporates quickly due to it being very volatile. When it evaporates it converts into a new substance via a chemical reaction. The resulting metabolite, cotinine, is very bitter in taste leading the Favor to have a dramatically reduced shelf-life and reducing its commercial viability. The final nail death knoll came in the form of an outright ban by the US FDA, who found the device to be considered a drug due to its pure nicotine content. Owing to the public interest in the development of the Favor, the creators inadvertently caused the term “vaping” to enter language. Having coined it during development to describe the act of using the Favor, the creators used this term in numerous public settings from TV interviews to newspapers, cementing its place in the lexicon, despite the ultimate failure of their venture. 

China begins the modern wave of vaping 

In 2002, Beijing pharmacist and three-pack per day smoker Hon Lik had a lapse in judgement that catalysed the invention of the e-cigarette as we know it today. Hon had been experimenting with traditional nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products for some time in an effort to curb his habit, and one night forgot to remove a nicotine patch from his stomach before going to bed. Owing to the nightmares he suffered as a result of the steady release of nicotine into his bloodstream as he slept, Hon concluded that there should be a better way of managing cravings without being subject to traditional NRT. Having been unable to find satisfaction equivalent to the sharp nicotine highs felt when smoking a cigarette, and utilising his background in medicine, knowledge of mechanics and a passion for electronics, Hon began to conceptualise an alternative product that delivered nicotine in the same way as a cigarette without the unintended health concerns. Having been diagnosed with lung cancer directly caused by smoking, Hon Lik’s father sadly died in 2004, further galvanising his resolve to develop a successful alternative. Citing inspiration from Gilbert’s earlier attempt in the 1960s, Hon utilised the resources at his current business “Golden Dragon Holdings” to develop the device, leading to the company changing its name to “Ruyan”, which translates to “like smoke”. The company was bought-out by the world’s fourth largest tobacco giant Imperial Tobacco. The technology Hon developed forms the basis for every modern e-cigarette available today, and he has achieved international acclaim as the “Father of Vaping”. Hon is a regular attendee of key vaping events and conferences globally, having become a significant influence at the industry’s upper levels and one of the most recognised faces in vaping history. All this time, Herbert A. Gilbert was still alive, having witnessed vaping’s subsequent rise to success off the back of his early design. Rather than bitterness at his lack of official recognition, he is recorded to instead be pleased to have contributed anything to a cause that has allowed people to quit smoking. 

“The only substantial thing I received was the satisfaction of saving millions of lives” Herbert A. Gilbert, age 87, now a retired resident of Florida.

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