A History of Vaping: When Did it Start?

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Vaping has taken the world by storm. Like many culture-shifting innovations, it can seem like vaping came out of nowhere. The truth, however, is much more complex than that.

Depending on how far back you want to go, you could say that vaping has been around for millennia. However, it would be more accurate to say that vaping devices have been around for a little less than a century, and vaping as a popular method of nicotine ingestion, has been around for about 20 years. In this piece, we’ll take you through the history of vaping – and see what it can tell us about the future of vaping.

The early days of vaping

To trace the history of vaping, we can go incredibly far back – all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. They would heat stones, and place herbs and oils onto those stones to vaporize them. This practice was used in saunas – a far relative of the vaping practices of today.

A closer analogue to the modern day vape came around in 1927. At that point in time, there was already a lot of research suggesting smoking tobacco had harmful effects. Yet, the first vape was not designed with tobacco in mind. It was a creation patented by Joseph Robinson, who invented it to vaporize medicinal compounds without getting burned. Nothing much came of this device, however.

In 1963, Herbert Gilbert, a man with a delightful name, invented the first smokeless, non-tobacco cigarette, but back then, cigarettes were still all the rage. Whether it was because the device cost too much to make, or they couldn’t envision a market for it, manufacturers were not interested in creating and selling Mr. Gilbert’s smokeless wonder.

In the 1980s, a very storied researcher comes on the scene. In 1984, Jed Rose created the first ever nicotine patch. He was motivated, in large part, by the death of his father at age 47 from smoking-related heart disease. 

He and another researcher, Frédérique Behm, developed what they called “distilled smoke” in the mid-1980s, effectively a prototype e-cigarette. The product never got out of its prototype phase.

In the 1990s, there were all kinds of homebrew attempts at vaporizers, none of which ever got past the various regulatory bodies. People who wanted to vape were forced to make their own inventions, including the creation of vaporizers using lightbulbs, some of which were used to vape, shall we say, other herbs.

Let’s do away with the euphemisms. From the creation of JUUL (which we’ll discuss later) to the first widely used vaporizer, nicotine vapes owe a lot to cannabis vapes. In fact, one of the first widely distributed modern vapes, the Volcano, was easier to find in your local cannabis shop than in a tobacco shop. At that time, though, cannabis shops were quite underground, and all of their products were labelled “For Tobacco Use Only”. 

The Volcano was created in 1998, and was first sold in the year 2000. That brings us to our next section:

Vaping in the 2000s

The 2000s is when vaping really started to pick up. In 2003, the first e-cigarette was invented by a Chinese doctor named Hon Lik. He, like Jed Rose, was motivated by the death of his father – in his case, to lung cancer. His e-cigarette, unlike those that came before, passed regulatory approval. E-cigarettes were finally on the mass market.

From here, there was an explosion of innovation – the homebrewing that started in the ‘90s hadn’t stopped, Internet forums were helping tinkerers share their ideas, and the seemingly impenetrable fortress of regulatory approval had finally been breached. In 2006, Umer and Tariq Sheikh invented the cartomizer, and began selling their e-cigarette in 2007. 

Let’s take a quick step back in time before we go into the 2010s. In 2004, two Stanford grads working on their master’s degrees, James Monsees and Adam Bowen, got to talking about design. While they were designing, they would both take regular smoke breaks – and hate it. They got to working on prototypes for e-cigarettes – Monsees acquired one from China, and believes he may have been one of the first Americans to hold one. Their story continues in the next section: 

Vaping in the 2010s

In 2010, Monsees and Bowen released an e-cigarette that was powered by butane. It did not fare well, as it was more expensive and seen as lower tech as other e-cigarettes on the market. In 2012, they unveiled the Pax. This device was designed to vaporize loose-leaf tobacco, unlike the liquid e-cigarettes available on the market.

The Pax did very well – but not because of tobacco users. The device was immensely popular among cannabis users, who were used to loose-leaf vaporizers since the Volcano was released in the year 2000. The portability of the Pax made it very attractive – but it never really caught on among nicotine users.

On the liquid nicotine side of things, innovation was occurring at a rapid clip. By 2012, clearomizers were on the market. Rebuildable dripping atomizers (RDAs) were becoming increasingly popular, and sub-ohm vaping was created. In 2014, Aspire Atlantis was released, a mass-market sub-ohm tank. More and more vapes and parts for RDAs were hitting the market – temperature control, variable wattage, different types of vape coils (including Clapton coils), and a whole bunch of other inventions came out in the 2010s.

These innovations were all occurring in the space of freebase nicotine e-juices. The folks over at PAX Labs (the company that owned PAX), however, were working on something totally different. In 2015, PAX Labs obtained a patent for nicotine salt preparation that allowed their vapes to vaporize e-juice with much higher nicotine content. That same year, PAX launched the JUUL vaporizer. Pod mods have become all the rage, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Vaping today

Today, vaping has become more popular, and various national health departments have declared that vaping is a useful stop-smoking tool. At the same time, these health departments are worried about an increase in vaping among youth. They believe this uptick has been spurred, in large part, by pod mods like the JUUL.

Where will vaping go from here? We’ll almost certainly continue to see innovation, but it may be slowed by regulatory blockages. We can expect more of these blocks in response to fears about youth vaping rates. We hope, though, that developers will continue to create safer, stealthier, and more health-conscious ways of vaping.

We hope this piece has given you some insight into how far vaping has come since it began. It was created as a stop-smoking tool by people who were deeply affected by smoking-related deaths. We hope it continues to be seen with this goal in mind. 


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