Ecigarettes don’t have a long history of being on the market, but their history is an interesting one, and their origins may not be quite what you would expect.

An American patented the first electronic cigarette

While their invention is usually credited to the Chinese, an American was the first one to conceive of the general idea in 1963. Inventor Herbert A. Gilbert filed a patent in 1965 for a smokeless non-tobacco cigarette which delivered flavoured air without nicotine. It didn’t catch on at the time since the negative health effects of smoking were not widely known at the time.

Americans continued to develop them - but failed

In the seventies and eighties, Phil Ray, a computing pioneer, worked with his personal doctor to develop the first commercially available e-cigarette which relied not on electronics, but on vapour alone similar to Gilbert’s patent. While it made its way into stores, the device didn’t catch on due to inherent faults. However, the marketing and advertising behind it brought us the terms “vape” and “vaping”.

Hon Lik invented the modern ecigarette based on a dream

Hon Lik, a Chinese research pharmacist, invented the first electronic cigarette which works as we know them today - a device which used an ultrasonic element to heat eliquid into a vapour. Lik quit smoking after his father died of lung cancer, and he was looking for solutions as an alternative to smoking to help others quit. One night, he left a nicotine patch on while sleeping, and had a dream of his lungs filling with water which turned into vapour. Using this as inspiration, he invented the first modern ecigarette.

He registered his patent in 2003, and the first ecigarettes based on his design came to the Chinese market in 2004. Unfortunately, many international companies illegally copied Lik’s design, which means he has not made lots of money off of his invention despite its worldwide use. Lik’s invention of the ecigarette and interviews with him are featured in the vaping documentary, A Billion Lives.

British entrepreneurs invented the cartomiser

While ecigarettes were widely popular, there were issues with what is now known as the first-generation design. British entrepreneurs Umer and Tariq Sheikh solved many of the issues in 2007 with the invention of the cartomiser, which integrated the eliquid chamber with the heating coil, allowing for easier filling and use. “Mods” to extend battery life and provide other functionality were widely popular in the late 00’s, with manufacturers incorporating the best of them into current designs, including clearomisers, which allow users to see the liquid level in the tank.

Further development of eliquids

Hon Lik also invented the modern eliquid, a simple solution of nicotine suspended in propylene glycol. From there, vegetable glycerin was added to the mix to produce more vapour, and various flavourings have been experimented with to make the vaping experience more pleasurable than smoking, and the levels of the nicotine have been adjusted to provide ever-decreasing levels of nicotine to help vapers withdraw gradually from nicotine addiction, much like other smoking cessation products. While there isn’t any historical data on precisely who introduced innovations to eliquids, much of this work was done by vapers who built their own DIY solutions and passed around the knowledge on the Internet. In fact, the rise of vaping can be credited to the Internet, as this is how most knowledge around ecigarettes and eliquids was - and still is - disseminated due to bans on advertising.

Regulators struggle to keep up

There is one main reason for the mercurial rise of the ecigarette in modern history - smokers want to quit, and ecigarettes help them achieve this goal. However, the industry rose fast enough that there wasn’t much scientific evidence for how ecigarettes work and affect users. England has performed much of the heavy lifting in scientifically evaluating ecigarettes through Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians, both of which have proclaimed that the relative harm of ecigarettes compared with smoking makes them an ideal smoking cessation tool, with Public Health England deeming them 95% safer than smoking. The United States is still far behind in regulation, with the Federal Drug Administration adopting a puritanical “quit or die” stance in regards to cigarettes which doesn’t take into account the relative harm and effectiveness of ecigarettes to help smokers quit.

One thing is certain - vaping isn’t going away. Bans on vaping in multiple countries are basically unenforceable as vapers can still order products from other countries through the Internet or make their own. While countries like Poland have additional crackdowns on ordering online, many countries do not. Bans simply force vapers to make their own eliquids, which can pose problems in terms of quality testing and safety which commercial companies are better equipped to handle. The future of vaping lies in standards for the industry which will satisfy government regulators that the products are safe for consumption, such as the Tobacco Products Directive in the United Kingdom.