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The History of Vaping Featured Image

The History of Vaping

Vaping has skyrocketed in popularity in the last decade or so, and you’d be forgiven for assuming vaping technology is a 21st-century innovation. 

However, what many don’t realise is that the first seeds of the vaping industry were sown all the way back in the 1920s and the e-cigarette has taken decades of attempts and failures to reach the kind of devices we see today. 

Let’s take a look at the (surprisingly long) history of vaping… 

The history of vaping: a timeline

1927: The first idea of the ‘electronic vaporizer’ 

Picture the ‘roaring 20’s’ and you’d imagine Great Gatsby style fashion, always accessorised with a cigarette – usually mounted on a glamorous cigarette holder. Cigarettes were all the rage and no one in this era was aware of just how bad smoking could be for health.  

However, this smoke-filled decade was when New Yorker Joseph Robinson first dreamed up the idea of the ‘electronic vaporizer’ and filed the patent for such a device on May 3rd 1927. 

Three years later, in 1930, the patent for his ‘Mechanical Butane Ignition Vaporizer’ was approved. Despite this approval, Robinson didn’t take his invention any further by prototyping or bringing it to market. 

Consequently, the idea of the electronic vaporizer lay dormant for over 30 years…

Joseph Robinson’s 1930 Patent

1965: The first e-cigarette prototype

In the 1960s, smoking was permitted pretty much everywhere, around 50% of American adults smoked and the general public was unaware of what we now know to be substantial health risks. There were, however, some murmurings of smoking-related health risks emerging and a 1958 quote from a Phillip Morris executive stated that “the first company to produce a cigarette claiming a substantial reduction in tars and nicotine . . .will take the market.”. 

In 1965, scientist Herbert A Gilbert from Pennsylvania, US, took the idea for the electronic cigarette a step further than Robinson had managed 3 decades earlier by not only patenting the idea for an e-cigarette but prototyping it too. 

Gilbert filed a patent for what would become the first version of the modern e-cigarette in April 1963 and it was granted in August 1965. Prototypes were built for this design using battery power as a heat source and nicotine-free flavoured water for vapour.  And so the first physical e-cigarette was created! 

Herbert Gilbert in the 1960’s

From Gilbert’s original designs, you’ll see that it has many of the fundamental design features found in modern devices.  

However, despite the Phillip Morris executive’s earlier predictions, with no ready-made market for this product and much of society still being ignorant to the need for a smoking alternative, Gilbert’s attempts to take his creation to market ultimately failed. 

After numerous rejections from chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco companies, Gilbert concluded that the failure of mass-producing and retailing his device was down to the concept being ‘ahead of its time’ combined with the influence of big tobacco companies at the time. 

It would, again, be many more years before the mass-market e-cigarette concept gained traction. 

Herbert Gilbert’s 1965 Patent

1979: The first commercialised vape and origins of ‘vaping’ 

In the late 1970s, a non-electronic ‘vape’ was created when computer entrepreneur Phil Ray and his physician Dr Norman Jacobson began the first formal research in nicotine delivery and developed a way of getting nicotine without the other chemicals and toxins present in tobacco cigarettes. Ray, a smoker himself, approached his doctor with the idea of inhaling pure nicotine vapour.

They created a non-electronic, non-combustible and vapourless system made from plastic that used nicotine-soaked paper that delivered nicotine when inhaled.

After setting up a company ‘Advanced Tobacco Products Inc’, their product, named ‘Favour’ (with the tagline ‘Do yourself a favour’) became the first commercially available vape device. A marketing plan was put in place and some of the major US grocery chains were retailing the device for a couple of years. 

An advertisement for ‘Favor’ smoke-free cigarettes

However, Favour never achieved mass sales or longevity due to both the problems caused by the short shelf life of liquid nicotine and the FDA eventually banning the product as it was considered a drug.  Eventually, the company made the decision to sell the product’s technology rather than to try and sell the product itself. The technology was sold to Swedish company Upjon who ultimately utilised it in developing a nasal spray. 

While the product failed to be a commercial success, this trial was significant in being the first time that the term ‘vaping’ was used for the action of using the device and ‘vapers’ for those who used them. As we know, this terminology is still widely used today, over 40 years later

A letter from the FDA’s non-approval of Favor

1990’s: More attempts (and failures)

In the 1990s, with the effects of cigarettes becoming even more apparent, many attempts were made to produce and sell versions of the tobacco-less cigarette… none of which found success. 

Throughout the decade, several patents were filed for nicotine delivery devices and ‘heat not burn’ products – some of which used evaporation and were similar to the e-cigarettes we see today.

Many of these patent holders made attempts at commercialisation without success. An attempt was even made by a major US tobacco company, who sought FDA approval for the production of an e-cigarette. This request was eventually denied due to it being classed as an unapproved drug delivery service.   

2003: Vaping’s big breakthrough!

After several decades and numerous failed US-based attempts, the big breakthrough for the modern vape industry came in the early 2000s…on the other side of the world! 

After his father was diagnosed with lung cancer, Chinese Pharmacist Hon Lik was determined to quit smoking. After trying nicotine patches he discovered they didn’t provide the nicotine needed to fight his cravings. 

With his scientific background coming into play, Lik concluded that vapourising and inhaling nicotine would be the most effective way of providing the nicotine hit needed to quit smoking cigarettes. 

In 2001 Lik started work on a device that would deliver this – starting with a large device that used food additives as solvents and ultrasound technology to vaporise them.  He soon concluded that this heating method wasn’t creating sufficient vapour to substitute tobacco smoke and kept working to improve the device over the next two years. 

Lik eventually managed to reduce the size of the device and replace the ultrasound technology with a more practical heating element – and the final invention was patented in 2003, with the device hitting the Chinese market in 2004. 

As for Hon Lik himself, In 2013, Fontem Ventures (Imperial Tobacco’s Netherlands subsidiary) bought his patents for £49 million and he now works for them as a consultant.

2006: Vaping goes global

After the success of Lik’s invention in China, e-cigarettes gained mass mainstream popularity after entering the European market in 2006 and the US market in 2007. 

Its emergence in these markets would lead the vape industry to reach unprecedented growth at the turn of the next decade…

Vaping and the world

2010 – Now: The vape industry grows

In the second decade of the 21st century, the vaping market saw rapid growth and the demand for new and innovative products increased. Several manufacturers became established and vaping devices continued to evolve from Hon’s original idea. 

This started with the humble ‘cigalike’ – a disposable e-cig designed to look and feel like a cigarette, this was at first the only kind of vape device available. 

The ‘cigalike’ was one of the most popular early devices

Eventually, more advanced technology meant that other kinds of e-cigarettes came onto the market. In the early 2010’s the first ‘vape pen’ – the Joyetech eGo was released. This was a great improvement to the cigalike thanks to its longer-lasting battery, improved vapour production and the bonus fact that it didn’t look like a traditional cigarette – which many preferred. Seeing the eGo’s popularity, other manufacturers began producing their own vape pens. This innovation was quickly followed by the emergence of the refillable pod system – offering even more convenience for users.

The Joyetech eGo was the first popular ‘vape pen’

As vaping became more popular, many users started to see it as not only a cigarette replacement, but as a hobby and a way of life – always striving to improve upon their vaping experience, produce more power and generate larger clouds. This prompted manufacturers to produce more advanced and impressive vape devices to appeal to this market. This led to the prevalence of the high-powered box mod, which has become a staple for the more advanced vaper. 

Along with vape devices, the e-liquid industry has also seen substantial growth, with multiple brands, flavours and e-liquid types becoming available over the years. 

Different kinds of vape devices

With the vaping market growing and expanding rapidly, vape shops soon became a fixture of most high streets and, combined with the growing prevalence of online shopping, the number of vapers worldwide grew from just 7 million in 2011 to 41 million in 2018 and this jumped to 55 million in 2021. 

After a decade of increasing growth, the present-day vaping industry is estimated to be worth over $15 billion with The USA, The UK and France making up the bulk of these sales. 

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 brought new and increased attention to the importance of lung health – prompting many to quit or find an alternative to smoking. This, combined with major health organisations including Public Health England championing the lower risk of vaping compared to smoking has brought even more attention to the vape industry. 

What’s next? The future of vaping…

After a long journey from the first sketch of Robinson’s e-cig idea in 1927 to the modern-day, billion-dollar, worldwide industry we see today vaping has come a long way. 

With more and more people realising the benefits of switching to vaping, continuing advances in technology and an estimated market value of $104 billion by 2028 the vaping industry shows no signs of slowing down.

Only time will tell what is next for vaping, but if the growth of the last decade is anything to go by, the future of the vaping industry could be even longer than its (surprisingly long) history.