It may seem like vaping, vaporizers and e-cigs are high-tech inventions of the new-fangled 21st century, like personal drones and Dippin’ Dots.
Turns out, vaporizing tobacco and other consumables to produce a smokeless smoking experience dates back centuries: Greek historian Herodotus wrote about early vaping practices in 600 B.C. after he hung out with the Scythians of ancient Persia used to toss hemp seeds on hot rocks to produce a sizzling vapor that made everyone “shout for joy.” (Ain’t no party like a Scythian party, am I right?)
Heating combustibles a lower temperature to release aromas, tastes and other materials instead of burning them has proved popular among those who prefer the delights of smoking without the sear. Since the 5th century and throughout world history hence, water pipes, bongs and hookahs have made use of water to bring down the temperature of smoke and reduce the harmful effects of smoking.
But it wasn’t until the 1920’s that someone figured out how to create vapor without fire. New Yorker Joseph Robinson filed for a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 1927 for a “mechanical butane ignition vaporizer” that utilized butane fuel, heating coils and specialized wicking to produce a vapor to inhale — sound familiar? The mechanics of Robinson’s invention may have their echoes in today’s high tech vaporizers, though his intention was very different.
Rather than providing an alternative for the then-ubiquitous cultural practice of smoking cigarettes all day every day for decades, Robinson’s electric machine was meant for patients seeking a more effective way to take their medicine. (Sometimes a spoonful of sugar doesn’t do the trick.)
“My invention relates to vaporizing devices for holding medicinal compounds which are electrically heated to produce vapors for inhalation, and to provide a device for individual use which may be freely handled without any possibility of being burned,” he explained in his application.
The USPTO granted Robinson his patent in 1930, but his vape technology never really caught on with the pharmaceutical community and doctors, who continue to administer medicine mostly via pills and syringes.
It wasn’t until 30 years later that someone took up the vaping torch again, this time as a way to give smokers a substitute to cigarettes. Herbert Gilbert of Beaver Falls, PA began experimenting in 1960 to create a “smokeless non-tobacco” device after his wife’s friend died from lung cancer, which back then was strongly suspected but not proven (thanks to Big Tobacco companies) to be a result of smoking.
A two-pack a day smoker himself, our man Herb hit upon the idea of using a small battery to heat a flavored compound liquid into aromatic steam after hanging around the family bakery, where good bread smells permeated the air.
“I knew what I really had to do was bake it, not burn it,” he said in an interview with Vaporcade in 2016.
He received his patent in 1965 for his invention that did just that, and as you can see, it looks almost identical to some of the most popular vaporizers on the market today. (As a matter of fact, in 2013 Emperor Brands bought the patent from Gilbert and sells a version of the original design.)
Herb also cooked up his own e-juice, which he first flavored with cinnamon but soon branched out into other delicious tastes. The December 1965 issue of Popular Mechanics marveled that Gilbert’s smokeless invention could simulate the flavor of “anything from root beer to rum.”
But cigarettes still reigned supreme, and it took another 50 years for vaping to make its way into the mainstream. In 2003, Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik refined the concept to create a sleeker vaporizer that used water and allowed users to mimic the plume of smoke exhaled by smokers. Dr. Lik was also a smoker who lost his father to lung cancer, and he hailed his invention as a way to reduce dependency on nicotine and help quit smoking altogether.
This time, people listened, and when Dr. Lik’s electronic cigarette hit the streets, people welcomed it. After a few years of steady converts, vaping became a worldwide trend that is now a full-fledged lifestyle with its own culture, accessories and gear.
Something tells us that the ancient Scythians would have approved.