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What is an Electronic Cigarette? A History

The term Electronic cigarette is really a bit of a misnomer as it isn’t really a cigarette at all. It does not contain tobacco and requires no combustion to function.
That it requires no combustion to function is really the salient point. It is the combustion process, which is largely responsible for the health hazards related to smoking.


Let’s look at a normal cigarette first.

Generally it consists of Tobacco, rolled in paper with a filter at one end. The Paper is produced so that it smoulders rather than burns quickly. It is necessary that it burns at about the same rate as the tobacco, if this were not the case the cigarette would not work. It would instead, go up in flames rather quickly and the result would be less than satisfying. So in order to produce the desirable burn rate some considerable chemical intervention has been implemented. Chemicals have been added to the tobacco to augment the flavour and achieve the desirable burn rate and the same chemistry has been applied to the paper for the same reasons.
So what we have in a Cigarette is a complex chemical mix, which is burned slowly. At the filter end we draw the smoke from this combustion into our lungs. We do this because we are addicted to Nicotine. Nicotine alone is a fairly innocuous substance, which while highly addictive, so far in research, which has been considerable; no-one has been able to identify significant and measurable harm as a result of it. It is poisonous in enough quantities and particularly so if ingested through the digestive system.

Where does the harm come from in a normal cigarette?

It is reasonable, therefore to assume that the terrible harm caused by a cigarette is not coming from the nicotine. It is difficult to avoid the irony in this, as it is really only the nicotine we are addicted to. It is reasonable to suggest that we may have taken something of a wrong turn by choosing to get our nicotine by burning tobacco and inhaling the smoke. As a result of this burning process we are, along with our required dose of nicotine, inhaling highly poisonous carbon monoxide, extremely damaging to our cardio vascular system and coating our lungs with tar residue which research has shown to be carcinogenic. The result has been a huge increase in heart disease and general cardio vascular problems from the carbon monoxide, and lung cancer from the tars. So far the nicotine itself does not seem to be doing us much more harm than the caffeine in our tea and coffee.

cancer smoking

The electronic cigarette was first invented in 1963

During the 60s it was becoming blatantly obvious to the medical profession that these cigarettes were killing people. There were a few very inventive and forward thinking people who saw the irony. They saw that what we really wanted was the nicotine we had become addicted to, but the way we were getting it was killing us. In 1963, way ahead of his time, Herbert Gilbert invented and patented what we now know as the electronic cigarette. It was in fact about forty years ahead of it’s time and needed technology to catch up with Herbert’s profound creativity before this became in any way a practical alternative to smoking a cigarette.
Herbert’s invention substituted the tobacco with liquid. This liquid was heated by a small heating element and turned into vapour, which could then be inhaled. No burning process or tobacco. Therefore no tar no carbon monoxide and consequently, no cancer and no heart disease.
Great idea, but the problem was that this was the 1960s. We didn’t have anywhere near the battery technology we have now and we didn’t have the micro chip or any of the semiconductor technology needed to make this a practical method of replacing the cigarette with the electronic cigarette safety we are experiencing today. No one was going to walk about with a wet cell car battery slung over their shoulder and a large vaporiser attached to a pipe.

As technology developed the electronic cigarette developed

Fast forward to the early 2000s and we have highly sophisticated manufacturing technology, we have very small and efficient lithium ion batteries, we have micro chip technology to create miniaturised control systems to provide power and switching. A Chinese inventor Hon Lik produced a practical and workable nicotine delivery system, which looked very much like the cigarette it was intended to replace. It consisted of a lithium ion rechargeable battery with an air activated flow switch. Attached to this was a small heating element and attached to the heating element was a cartridge which drip fed a solution of Nicotine and Propylene Glycol (a highly inert food additive, which has been safely used for many years in asthma inhalers) on to the heating element so that it will become vaporised and can be inhaled by the user. This delivers nicotine directly via the lungs in the same way as smoking, but with no tar no carbon monoxide and no irony.

herbert gilbert e-cig

The electronic cigarette of today

The early electronic cigarette kits available around 2004 did have some small problems. The drip-feeding delivery of nicotine to the vaporising element was inconsistent and not reliable. The heating elements were soldered together and there was some risk of contamination from the heavy metals used in this process. However it was already clear that despite the shortcomings a very real, practical and safe alternative to smoking was born. The product became what we now know as the electronic cigarette, E-cig or Miniciggy. The uptake among smokers was instant and massive. Almost as instant and massive as the fear invoked in politicians and major drug companies who could see this as a major problem for themselves.
A problem for the drug companies as already “smoking cessation” had become a billion dollar though largely ineffective industry in it’s own right. Politicians because despite the lip service and carefully diplomatic appearance to be anti smoking, there was no way they were wanting to look for a way of replacing the massive revenue brought in from smoking. There was no question that despite the huge health hazards, it was bringing in far more than it was costing. The very idea that electronic cigarettes might take off and even replace smoking has been causing many sleepless nights for those who are now faced with finding a way of taxing something which no longer carries the wonderful advantage of being able to look like it is being highly taxed to discourage the smoker for the smokers health sake, but in fact is hardly more harmful than a cup of coffee. The massive uptake gave rise to a whole competitive industry. This in itself brought about further improvement and sophistication. Gone now are the heating elements with heavy metal solder. Gone now is the separate atomiser and drip-feed system. This has been replaced by cartomisers, which have a sophisticated and effective system for providing a consistent vapor for each inhalation. The Electronic cigarette has become a viable, practical and satisfying replacement for the cigarette.
Now nicotine addicts are free at last from the irony of being killed by the method, which delivers them the relatively harmless nicotine their addiction causes them to desire.
I suppose we have to thank Herbert Gilbert for his amazing foresight. Even though he was so ahead of his time both culturally and technologically. Without his inventiveness Hon Lik may never have had the idea that with current battery and manufacturing technology it is now possible to replace the killer cigarette altogether.
I think there is little doubt that the electronic cigarettes as we know it, will in time, replace the cigarette altogether. It will be interesting to watch the Politicians, drug companies, and all of those with a vested interest in keeping the status quo, fight it out, but there is not much doubt that the outcome is set in stone. The E cig is here to stay and the days of tobacco smoking are numbered