The invention of the vape is very recent, but in just a few years this product has experienced a spread and improvement comparable to that of PCs and smartphones.
What are the steps that led to all this? And, above all, who is the mind behind the electronic cigarette?
Hon Lik’s intuition
It all goes back to 2002, when the Chinese Hon Lik, a student of pharmacy and traditional Chinese medicine, thought of a method to quit smoking.
His addiction, which began at 18, had worsened over time, leading him to smoke two or three packs of cigarettes a day. The death of his father, also a smoker, had ended up convincing him to quit, but his attempts had not been successful.
As Hon Lik himself said in an interview released a few years ago, the idea arose while he was in the tub and was sticking on “[…] one of those special smoking cessation patches. I had tried all the methods, none had worked: and I thought it didn’t give me the same sensation as smoking. Something was missing: the smoke, first of all. So I thought of a cigarette that works by feeding steam with electric current ”.
To hear his words, it seems like a simple idea and one wonders why it hasn’t been implemented before. Well, only a strong miniaturization of all the components, combined with a complicated choice of the liquid to vaporize and the best way to vaporize it, made it possible to create a device that could truly be called an “electronic cigarette”.
The stages of the invention, in fact, were numerous. Before coming to use a resistance, for example, Hon Lik had tried to use an ultrasonic vaporization, but with poor results. In addition, he also had to identify the right liquids to create a vapor that gave a sensation similar to cigarette smoke, as well as combinations of aromas suitable to provide the same impression.
Finally, before reaching the world patent of 2003, it was necessary to give shape to the device, so that even in this respect it could resemble a cigarette, despite having a completely different soul.
Hon Lik’s purpose in all of this had always been guided by his personal goal: to quit smoking and thus create a method that could help other smokers to do the same.
Still quoting from the interview already mentioned, he said that “the data can be summarized as follows: if 100 is the risk of disease for those who smoke traditional cigarettes, 5 is the risk for those who smoke electronic cigarettes”. His expectation of his revolutionary product was that it could “leave a positive mark on humanity“, improving the health of millions and millions of individuals around the world.
Spread around the world
Hon Lik patented the first e-cig in 2003 and success was not long in coming.
The following year, the electronic cigarette entered the Chinese market and soon many American and European consumers began to show interest. The manufacturing company Hon Lik worked for changed its name to Ruyan, literally “Something that resembles smoke”, and gave way to exports and with them the worldwide fame of the e-cig.
Soon other inventors significantly improved the electronic cigarette, introducing new models and further innovations. In 2007, in Great Britain, the cartomizer was patented and together with this also a real new type of e-cig. Soon the first mods were born and many began to create homemade modifications to their electronic cigarettes.
In 2009 the clearomizer was invented and the latter, together with the evolutions in the field of batteries, allowed an increasingly rapid spread of the e-cig among consumers, even of the box type, less similar to the classic blondes.
Given the evolution of the market, even the large tobacco multinationals threw themselves into the business, after an initial mistrust. In particular, Imperial Tobacco bought the patents from Hon Lik in 2013 for US $ 75 million. Fontem Ventures, a subsidiary of Imperial, then hired Hon Lik himself as a consultant and promoter of his invention.
At the time, this choice raised the criticism of many vaping fans around the world. It was almost as if the tobacco multinationals wanted to use the e-cig to induce consumers to smoke anyway, albeit in a different way than the traditional one, and all with the support of Hon Lik.
However, he has countered these criticisms several times since then, bringing attention back to the only point that has always been at heart, namely the fact that his invention has served and will only serve to reduce the diseases deriving from traditional cigarettes, at the beyond any market logic.
Invention of the vape: previous attempts
The electronic cigarette, in truth, is only the latest exponent in a long chain of inventions and innovations that have followed one another for decades. Its history depends on that of the uses of steam, electricity and finally electronics.
Among the precursors of the e-cig we could first of all mention the name of Joseph Robinson, who on May 3, 1927 filed an exceptional patent in New York, relating to a device he called “butane vaporizer with mechanical ignition”.
His project involved the construction of a mechanism, decidedly rudimentary and cumbersome by today’s standards, capable of creating vapor from medicines that required to be inhaled. Even in this case, however, the real “great-grandson” of this invention is not the electronic cigarette: rather, it is a sort of aerosol. In any case, despite the acceptance of his patent three years later, Robinson’s project was never launched on the market.
The first name you come across in the actual history of the electronic cigarette is that of Herbert A. Gilbert. About thirty years after Robinson, the young Gilbert, a veteran of the Korean War, thought of the first form of e-cig, conceived precisely with the purposes of today’s models: smoking while avoiding the combustion of tobacco.
With the technologies of the time, Gilbert conceived a device capable of heating flavored water thanks to the energy of a battery, and his project proved to be working. Despite his considerable foresight, however, the risks of tobacco smoke were not yet well known, and therefore the times were not yet ripe, and so was not the market.
Finally, before the electronic cigarette as we know it today, comes the system devised by Phil Ray, already linked to important innovations relating to microprocessors. In the late 1970s, Ray intended to create no more and no less than the e-cigarette we know today: a method of smokeless smoking.
Paradoxically, however, his project was less mature than Gilbert’s, and consisted of inhaling pure nicotine vapors emitted by heating a filter moistened with a solution of nicotine and water. Again, the system didn’t work.