Will the Real Inventor of E-cigarettes Please Stand Up?

Who do you think was first inspired to create the now popular electronic cigarettes? Was it Hon Lik, a pharmacist in Beijing, or Herbert A. Gilbert, the scrapyard worker from Pennsylvania? Although these men grew up in different circumstances and countries, both were cigarette smokers looking for a way to effectively quit their nicotine dependence.

While many news reports and feature articles declare Hon Lik as the brilliant inventor who designed the more streamlined look and functions of the electronic cigarette, it was H.A. Gilbert who thought about a smokeless alternative to tobacco. He outlined his ideas for this new invention in the proposal he submitted to the U.S. patent office. He was awarded the patent in 1965, but unfortunately, people at that time weren’t ready yet to accept such a forward-thinking device.

smokeless non-tobacco cigarette

Before Gilbert had his design patented, there were others before him who thought of creating a device that looked like a cigarette, but those objects simply simulated the look and feel of a lit cigar or cigarette and not its functions. They neither burned tobacco nor delivered nicotine in some other form.

In his 2013 interview with James Dunworth of the Ashtray Blog, Gilbert recalled that he thought of his aunt’s baking when he was brainstorming for a tobacco replacement device. He noted that anything we burned – whether it’s tobacco leaves or ground cinnamon – produced noxious chemicals that we wouldn’t want to take into our lungs. He then realized that “cooking” the flavored liquid in the cartridge would effectively eliminate many problems associated with burning tobacco.

Unlike previous designs for tubular inhalers that looked like cigarettes, Gilbert’s invention made use of a “harmless flavored chemical compound.”

As suggested, such compounds may be solutions ranging from slightly mentholated water to a solution which would simulate artificially the flavor of Scotch whisky [sic]. Many other solutions and flavors may be employed.

In 2003, a man from Beijing dreamed a strange dream while undergoing nicotine replacement therapy using nicotine patches.

And to think it all began in a dream. In the early 2000s, Hon Lik, a 47-year-old pharmacist from northwest China, was living with a 30-year nicotine habit. When his father died of lung cancer, Hon tried hard to quit. Occasionally, he’d forget to remove his nicotine patch before bed and would lie for hours suffering a train of nightmares. One night he dreamed he was drowning in the sea. The water sucking him down turned into a strange, misty vapour. He woke, suddenly, with an extraordinary idea: what if there were some sort of device that could generate harmless vapour instead of smoke? Surely that would be a more pleasurable nicotine delivery system than these awful patches?

Hon Lik’s invention was the precursor to the present incarnation of the e-cigarette. It worked the same way as Gilbert described it, but makes use of a piezoelectric heating element to create vapor. Hon Lik wanted a nicotine delivery system as a replacement to nicotine patches, gums and injectables. It’s interesting to note that he worked for Golden Dragon Holdings, which later changed its name to Ruyan (it means “like smoke”), that developed the e-cigarette and began exporting it to the United States in 2007.

In comparison, Herbert A. Gilbert envisioned a tool that made use of “heated, moist, flavored air” to help people stop smoking. In his statement, published on the history page of Emperor Brands, he said:

As the inventor and patent holder of the very first Electronic Cigarette, I am proud to be a part of the Emperor Brand team and the launch of their first brand 1963™ the Original.

Yes, me, an American, living in the good old USA – invented in 1963 and patented in 1965. Not someone in China, as many seem to think. In 1963 in my patent I described my invention as “a smokeless non-tobacco cigarette” that involved “replacing burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavored air.” My device produces a smoke-like vapor that can be inhaled and provides a vehicle for nicotine delivery into the bloodstream via the lungs.

Until Emperor Brands reached out and asked me to join forces with his team of inventors and scientists, my work went virtually unrecognized.

In 1963 my wish was then and still is now to have an alternative to the scourge of tobacco cigarettes. With the ecig market starting to explode, more than ever my dream is rekindled with Emperor Brands common goal to help save millions of lives every year from cancer caused by tobacco.

Who do you think should be recognized as the inventor of electronic cigarettes: Herbert A. Gilbert or Hon Lik? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


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