The Illustrious History of Vaping – From Hookahs of Yore to First E-Cigs

vaping history

If you’re new to vaping, you might be under the impression that it’s a relatively new thing. You would only be partially right – the first e-cig (as we know it today) was only introduced in 2003, in China, from where it spread to the rest of the world during the following couple of years.

However, vaping has a far richer history – although the act itself wasn’t called that until a couple of millennia later. In fact, a number of cultures enjoyed the sweet-smelling act of immersion in various herbal vapors. The first medium used for that was not an atomizer – it was a far less advanced pile of hot, steaming…stones!

Vaping in the Ancient Times

While it might be a bit of a stretch to call this vaping, the Egypt-based Scythians had a vapor-related practice. An ancient historian Herodotus, also called ‘the father of history’ for his great contributions to the field, writes: “The Scythians take some of this hemp-seed and throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it vaporizes and gives out such a vapor as no Grecian vapor-bath can exceed; the Scythians, delighted, shout for joy.”

According to some accounts, Safavid Dynasty moguls used what we today called a hookah, or a water pipe. Its variants exist to this day and are used mostly in Islamic countries where there’s a strong tradition of inhaling the vapor of scented herbs.

Both practices are fairly removed from modern vaping but are, nonetheless, a part of vaping history. To come to modern-day e-cigs (or, at least, to a device that resembles them), we have to fast-forward some 1500 years into the future.

Vaping in the 20th Century – The Emergence of the First E-Cigarette

Not even many hardcore vapers know this, but the first e-cigarette prototype was conceived back in 1927. A man called Joseph Robinson filed a patent request (the patent was granted in 1930) that was related to an electric vaporizer. The original document notes: “My invention relates to vaporizing devices for holding medicinal compounds which are electrically heated to produce vapors for inhalation.” The device was not intended as a nicotine delivery tool, but, still, the resemblance to 2nd generation vape pens is still visible. As far as we know, not a single prototype was ever produced and the invention was not commercialized at that time.

The 1960s & Vaping

Herbert A. Gilbert is generally credited with creating a device that all other e-cigarettes are modeled on. He received a patent for it in 1965 but the device didn’t take off, mostly because tobacco companies were not really interested in a substitute for combustible cigarettes. Gilbert created several prototypes of his new vape device but it’s not really clear whether or not he ever experimented with using it as a nicotine delivery system.

The 1980s & the First Recorded Use of the Term ‘Vaping’

In 1981, Phil Ray, who is credited with inventing the microprocessor, decided to do himself a favor and quit his nasty habit of smoking. He invented a device that delivered nicotine without combustion. In effect, the device had a nicotine-soaked paper in it and would release it when puffed on.

He partnered with Dr. Norman L. Jacobson and they managed to get their company off the ground, selling their device all over the Western United States. Unfortunately, their delivery system was flawed (nicotine has a low evaporation point so the device had a very short shelf life), and they were forced to sell their invention to another company. It’s a fascinating story and you can learn more about it here.

Despite the fact that their device failed (and that it wasn’t really an e-cigarette), they are the first ones to use the terms ‘vaping’ and ‘vapers’, which kind of makes them a big deal, at least in my book.

Hon Lik and the Dream of a Modern E-Cigarette

The first e-cigarette was dreamed up! Well, sort of.

In 2000, a pharmacist from China, Hon Lik, fell asleep and dreamt that he was drowning. All of a sudden, the water turned to vapor. I could say the rest is history, but here’s a bit more background. Hon Lik was a smoker, like his father. He watched his father die of smoking-induced cancer so that probably had something to do with his prophetic dream.

In any case, he patented his dream back in 2003. The first e-cig used a high frequency, piezoelectric ultrasound-emitting element, which vaporized the liquid containing nicotine. Although it looked similar to what we see today, that first electronic cigarette operated on very different principles.

Hon Lik named his invention Ruyan (resembling smoke) and his company, Golden Dragon Holdings, started marketing it in China. In 2005, it appeared on the European market and, by 2006, it started making slow progress in the United States (here’s the first US import ruling concerning e-cigs).

Umer and Tariq Sheik and the First Cartomizer

As I already mentioned, Hon Lik’s e-cig involved ultrasound – zapping vape juice using a completely different technology than what we use today. As such, it required a lot of moving parts and it wasn’t really user-friendly or convenient. British entrepreneurs, brothers Sheik, made everything simpler when they invented a cartomizer. Essentially, a cartomizer combined a coil with the tank, and the invention was adopted by a number of cigalike brands at the time.

Vaping as We Know It Today

Trying to list all the breakthroughs in vaping technology here would make for a really, really long read. Suffice it to say that, after 2008 (when vaping gained a footing in Europe and the US), vapers themselves started experimenting with devices. They modified household items such as Radio Shack plastic boxes and flashlights to accommodate larger batteries in an effort to create devices that could deliver more flavor and vapor. Eventually, vape manufactures caught on and started designing vape mods (short for modified) to satisfy a growing segment of vapers who wanted more.

Today, we have countless designs and vape technologies in use – all the way from vape pens and mods, to temperature control and squonk devices. The question remains; how many people in the world are actually using those devices? Do we know how large the vaping community really is?

Not exactly, but let’s crunch up the numbers.

The Number of Vapers Worldwide in 2017

Estimating how many regular (every-day) vapers there are in the world is no easy task. Unfortunately, we don’t have the data for most countries, and even the data that we do have is mostly guesswork. However, we can say that a number of vapers worldwide is not lower than 20 million. This is a pretty conservative number – personally, I believe it to be double than that but without concrete evidence, it’s hard to prove that.

Let’s take a look at what we do know.

  • A 2015 CDC report estimates that there are over 9 million regular vapers in the United States. However, the number of occasional users is probably a lot higher.
  • According to ASH figures, there are 2.8 million vapers in the United Kingdom.
  • Waterloo University puts the number of vapers in Canada between 300K and 1 million.
  • Approximately, 4 million Italians vape on a regular basis.
  • Around 10 million French citizens have experience using an e-cigarette.
  • Australia is estimated to have around 130,000 regular vapers.
  • Some surveys show that there are possibly around 7 million vapers in Asia.

Adding everything up, we come to a rough estimate of 30 million vapers in the world, discounting South America, which has a very small vaping scene due to over-regulation. However, let’s assume that not everyone is a regular vaper, which brings us down to 20 million. You have to keep in mind that the data here is pretty old. As far as we know, the real number of vapers worldwide could be double this (and I bet it actually is), so around 40 million, or it could be lower (which I seriously doubt).

Vaping Close To a 100 Year Anniversary (Sort Of)

If we take Robinson’s first invention back in 1927 as the inception of vaping (disregarding hookahs, of course), we’re only 10 years shy of the first 100 years of vaping. On the other hand, if we credit Gilbert with the first e-cigarette, they we’ve already passed the 50-year mark. Whatever the number you subscribe to, it’s evident that vaping has a long and rich history. Hopefully, it will be around for at least that long, if not longer.