The Amazing & True History of the E-Cigarette

Nearly ten years ago, a tobacco alternative called e-cigarettes hit American store shelves and quickly exploded into a billion dollar biz... and it's all based on technology that's over a half-century old. You may ask yourself, how did we get here? And what ever happened to the Talking Heads? Well, we can definitely answer the former with this smoking hot timeline.

Vladyslav Starozhylov/Shutterstock

1400s: Europeans arrive in America, and develop an appetite for tobacco

To understand e-cigs, you need a quick refresher on tobacco. Shortly after their “discovery” of the Americas, its natives introduced the Europeans to a potent plant in the nightshade family; they’d christen it “tobacco," but they’d also transform its use, turning a mystic (even ceremonial) act of smoking into a rampant habit. In a few hundred years, much of the world puffed with abandon, until the negative health consequences became apparent in the 20th century.

1858: The first "powered" or pressurized inhaler is invented by a French guy 

Sales-Girons’ invention is the first to transmit a substance into an inhalable form without relying on combustion—his design relied on a hand pump, like for a bicycle, for power. In order to inhale nicotine, it needs to be in gaseous state (duh), which for centuries was only achievable through combustion—to ignite the leaves and inhale the smoke. Instead of fire, e-cigarettes rely on electric energy; it's a transition sort of like how you don't read the latest Game of Thrones book via lamplight fueled by whale blubber.

1930s: The first electric vaporizer is invented and is used to treat pneumonia

Called “Pneumostat,” this pharmaceutical device is the first to turn liquid into an aerosol using conventional electricity, an essential step en route to e-cigarettes.

1964: The first electronic cigarette is invented WAY before its time

Gilbert of Beaver Fall, PA files to patent a “smokeless, non-tobacco cigarette” in 1963. Inspired by nebulizers (and devices like them), Gilbert seeks to create a battery-powered gadget, which would release an aerosol comprised of both nicotine and “moist, flavored air.” ("Moist" wasn't a gross word back then.) While Gilbert’s patent is accepted in 1965, and Popular Mechanics mentions in their December issue, his idea is never commercialized (it does, however, succeed in getting Gilbert to quit cigarettes).

1979: Dr. Norman Jacobson further develops the inhalation of smokeless nicotine

Basically a cigarette-sized plastic tube containing "a plug impregnated with nicotine solution," and called a "Flavor Cigarette." In 1987, the FDA tries to ban its marketing, but a judge rules that ban bunk, as it's not marketed with claims of "therapeutic benefit." Also "impregnated"? Gross, dude.

1979-2002: Big Tobacco ignores the commercial potential for e-cigarettes, and so does everyone else

Nothing really happens, e-cigarette-wise. One thing worth noting is the development of the cell phone, which would produce smaller and more portable lithium batteries, which e-cigarettes now rely on and let you carry these things in your pocket instead of a hilariously oversized backpack.

2003: The e-cigarette rises back to life

Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist and inventor, independently designs a gizmo similar to Gilbert’s, but one that produced a more viscous, vaporized cloud, which appears similar to stage fog (because it’s similar in composition). The pharmaceutical company he works for, called Golden Dragon Holdings, is so impressed that they changed their name to Ruyan (which translates to “like smoke”) and begins marketing the product aggressively in China, where 60% of men smoke (do the math and that means there are more male smokers in China than there are people in the United States). Sales proved lucrative, and Ruyan set their sights abroad.

2007: The first e-cigarettes enter the American market

Companies like Ruyan begin selling e-cigarettes stateside.

2008: New Zealand welcomes e-cigarettes, and so does Germany, after some debate

While countries like Panama, Australia, and Holland(!) have banned e-cigs outright, the New Zealand Ministry of Health declares them a “safe alternative to smoking." That same year (2008) in Germany, there's a protest in DĂĽsseldorf, in response to actual raids on stores selling the devices. Within a matter of weeks, the Higher Administrative Court for North Rhine-Westphalia (phew!) decrees that warnings be removed from e-cigarette packaging, and that it be declassified from a drug to a tobacco product.

2010: The first “VapeFest” is held in Richmond, VA in 2010

The first generation of e-cigarettes available stateside are perceived to be dinky, unsatisfying, and overpriced; they’re disposable, and cost around $15 a pop. In response, a cultish cadre of “vapers” emerges, ex-smokers who passionately make their own e-cigarettes. It’s a Wild West of a marketplace, with very few regulations, and its origins as a substantial movement can be traced to the first VapeFest, an event that was half trade show, half convention, as vapers from all across the US gathered to show off their homemade “mods” and swap flavors.

2010: Katherine Heigl is the first celebrity to candidly use an e-cig on TV

Katherine Heigl puffs on an e-cigarette on David Letterman. Well not on David Letterman the person.

2010: FDA tries to block import of e-cigarettes, but a federal judge rules they are legal 

E-cigarettes sold in the US are mostly manufactured in China; there is a $100 million market Stateside.

2013: When e-cigarette sales reach $1.5 Billion, Big Tobacco gets on the e-cig bandwagon

Having ignored e-cigarettes since the 60s (Gilbert’s idea was presented to them shortly after being patented), Big Tobacco makes moves in the electronic cigarette market when it proves profitable. And, as Big Tobacco is a monster industry, they’ve already bought up most of the game.

2014: The number of American e-cig users is now nearly the same as cigarette smokers

Since 1965, the percentage of American adults who smoke has fallen from 42% to 20%. And while e-cigarettes only entered the American market en masse in 2007, 18.7% of Americans in 2014 report taking a drag on an e-cig at least once, and one in five of those Americans keep on puffing once they’ve had a taste.

Jonathan Cohen/Flickr

2014: Fancy booknerds have to reckon with the rise of e-cigarettes

The Oxford English Dictionary makes “vape” its word of the year -- and there's no looking back.


2015: The people who brought you Pax vaporizers roll out their own e-cig

Called the JUUL. How is it the next frontier of ecigs? It is the first and only e-cigarette to utilize nicotine salts found in leaf-based tobacco. This change in chemistry means a drag on a JUUL packs 2X as much nicotine as other ecigs, closer to cigarette levels than ever before.

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