The wild history of vaping, from a 1927 'electric vaporizer' to today's mysterious lung injury crisis

Fox Photos/Getty ImagesWomen dressed as nuns have a cigarette break during the Walmer Castle pageant in Kent circa 1931.

For thousands of years, people have been enjoying the subtle rush that smoking tobacco leaves, thereby ingesting nicotine, can provide.

But it wasn’t until about 220 years ago that doctors started realising how harmful smoking can be. Dr. Benjamin Rush was one of the first to point this out, in 1798, calling smoking “offensive” and a-moral, while also suggesting, correctly, that it can prompt “incurable diseases” and cancers.

Ever since, inventors have been on a quest to find new ways to get a satisfying nicotine high, without the stinky cigarettes. Here’s a look at how vaping came to be, and where the industry’s steam might be headed next.


Concerns about smoking go back more than 200 years.

London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesSix skeletons smoking around the dinner table, in an image taken around 1865.

In the 1800s, doctors started seeing lip cancer cases in smokers. Shortly after, some of the first reports of lung cancer began surfacing, with nearly 1,000 cases reported by the 1920s.


In 1927, Joseph Robinson dreamed up what might be the very first “electric vaporizer,” a device he said was for “medicinal compounds.”

US Patent via Google PatentsWhat may be the very first US patent for an ‘electric vaporizer’ was filed on May 3, 1927.

He dreamt the device would make it easier to inhale vapors “without any possibility of being burned.”


But people kept on smoking. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that most people started becoming concerned about the health effects of cigarettes.

Keystone View/FPG/Getty ImagesTwo women lighting cigarettes on a tennis court in Essex, England circa 1930’s.

Source: Cancer Medicine, 6th edition


In 1963, another man, Herbert Gilbert, pioneered this “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette,” but he couldn’t find any manufacturers interested in making the product.

US Patent and Trademark OfficeHerbert Gilbert filed a patent for this ‘smokeless non-tobacco cigarette’ on April 17. 1963.

Source: Smithsonian


There were other attempts at early e-cigarettes over the years. Jed Rose, who invented the first nicotine patch, experimented with something called “distilled smoke” in his lab at UCLA in the 1980s.

Jed Rose and Frederique BehmJed Rose and Frederique Behm experimenting with early e-cigarettes in the 1980s.

Source: Insider


The e-cig predecessor was “a bit too far ahead of its time,” Rose said.

Jed Rose and Frederique Behm

Source: Insider


In 2000, a tabletop “Volcano” vaporizer entered the market. It was not really designed for tobacco, though.

Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesPatients at Cannabis Therapeutics in Colorado Springs Tyrone Ennis 40, and Ryan Niell 19, watch Sarah Harris 23, fill a bag with marijuana vapour from a volcano vaporizer.

“How Rich People Smoke Pot” is how The Daily Beast referred to it.


The e-cigarette as we know today didn’t show up until Chinese smoker and pharmacist Hon Lik invented it in 2003.

Frederic Brown/AFP via Getty ImagesHon Lik smokes his invention in Beijing on May 25, 2009.

Lik, who at one point was downing up to three packs of cigarettes a day, says he was galvanised to invent a new device after his own father, also a smoker, died of lung cancer.


“I believed that if I could use vapour to simulate cigarette smoke, this could help me,” Lik said.

Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty ImagesHon Lik, the Chinese inventor who dreamed up the electronic cigarette in a nicotine-induced vision, smokes one in his Beijing office on September 23, 2013.

Source: Reuters


But Lik, like many others, has become a dual user. He still smokes cigarettes, and he vapes now, too.

vm / Getty Images

Researchers suspect that for some cigarette users like Lik, e-cigs only “perpetuate nicotine addiction,” providing “more access to nicotine.”

But there is some evidence that e-cigs can help people quit smoking, if they’re part of a larger cessation program with counseling, support, and anti-smoking drugs on board.


Around 2006, vaping was first introduced in Europe, and it wasn’t long before it made its way into the US too.

Neil Mockford/Getty Images for Blu eCIGsJamie Laing vaping a bespoke blu e-cigarette on April 21, 2015 in London.

Source: US Customs and Border Protection


World health authorities were puzzled by the new devices.

Ivan Damanik/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesIndonesian teen sucking fumes from e-cigarettes in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia on December 5, 2014.

“As far as WHO is aware, no rigorous, peer-reviewed studies have been conducted showing that the electronic cigarette is a safe and effective nicotine replacement therapy,” the World Health Organisation wrote in 2008.


As vapers inhale, they heat up a liquid.

John Keeble/Getty Images

It’s usually a mix of propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerin (called PG-VG), which vaporizes and delivers drugs, along with any chosen flavours.


N’Joy, founded in 2007, was one of the first major e-cigarette brands in the US.

Eugene Gologursky/WireImageBritany Nola attends the N’JOY King Launch at The Jane Hotel on December 6, 2012 in New York City.

The company once filed for bankruptcy in 2016, as it struggled to find enough customers interested in using its devices.


But other companies have had no problems attracting new customers.

From the collection of Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco AdvertisingIn 2015, JUUL chose one magazine to launch their advertising campaign: VICE. Vice marketed itself to advertisers as the ‘#1 youth media company.’

Juul has recently come under fire for its early-day marketing techniques, which Stanford physician Robert Jackler called “patently youth-oriented.”


At least a quarter of teens in the US today say they have tried vaping, while about 6% of high schoolers vape regularly.

David Benett/Getty Images for blu eCigsPips Taylor at the official UK launch of blu eCigs, and the start of the brand’s forthcoming UK music tour on May 8, 2014.

Source: Insider


Some teens are now suing Juul, saying they became addicted to their nicotine products and never smoked before.

Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Source: Insider


“It’s really not wonderful,” President Trump said of vaping in September. “People are dying from vaping.”

AP Photo/Evan VucciPresident Donald Trump talks about a plan to ban most flavored e-cigarettes, in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, in Washington.

Source: Insider


So far, at least 37 people across the US have died after vaping nicotine, THC, or (usually) some combination of the two.

Skye Gould/Business Insider

Federal investigators aren’t sure yet what’s causing the mysterious lung injury outbreak that popped up earlier this year, and has sickened an estimated 1,888 people across the country.

A former Juul executive filed a lawsuit earlier this week, saying that company knowingly sold tainted Juul pods to customers and stores.


Because the e-cigarettes industry is largely unregulated at the federal level, it’s difficult to know exactly what’s in any single vape.

Rainer Jensen/picture alliance via Getty Images

Source: US Food and Drug Administration


Many experts suspect there could be dangerous chemicals lurking in some vapes.

AP Photo/Rick BowmerChild-proof refill bottles of liquid nicotine on display at Salt Lake Vapors, in Salt Lake City.

Vitamin E acetate has recently been found in the lungs of sick vapers nationwide.

“When vitamin E acetate is inhaled, it may interfere with normal lung function,” Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) principal deputy director Anne Schuchat said.


President Trump promised in September that his administration would be pushing for a ban on flavored e-cigarettes soon, but nothing’s happened yet.

Mark Wilson/Getty ImagesChairman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) points to a poster showing similarities between Marlboro cigarette ads and JUUL vaping paraphernalia, during a House Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee hearing that heard testimony on JUUL’s role in the youth nicotine epidemic, on July 25, 2019 in Washington, DC.

“When has a ban really worked for anything?” Lawyer Rick Meadow, whose firm is handling one teenager’s lawsuit against Juul, told Insider. “If there’s a market for it, somebody’s going to come through with it.”


Research on vaping is still scant, but some preliminary studies are starting to trickle out, suggesting that (like smoking) there may be serious health consequences to vaping.

Jacobsen/Getty ImagesModel Frances Richards smokes a pack of cigarettes all on one cigarette holder.

“I think there’s an emerging consensus that the immune cells of the lung are a little bit upset by vaping,” Professor Robert Tarran, who studies vaping at the University of North Carolina Marisco Lung Institute, previously told Insider.

One October study from NYU suggested that e-cigarettes can turn on cancer genes and promote tumour growth, but the research has only been done in mice, so far.

“As a consumer product, they’re a disaster,” Stanton Glantz, who directs the UCSF Centre for Tobacco Research Control and Education, told Insider.


Cigarette giants are already experimenting with some new e-cig alternatives.

ShutterstockSea salt.

One that Rose sold to cigarette giant Philip Morris International isn’t heated above room temperature at all, and involves mixing a nicotine salt with acid.

He called the system “literally cool,” compared to vaping.

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