Who invented e-cigarettes?

Looking at the historical records, many large and small events occurred in 1963, which are regrettable or memorable. Black civil rights leader Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech “I have a dream” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington; the 35th US President Kennedy was assassinated; China has not yet recovered from three years of natural disasters, and has The Soviet Union launched an ideological battle; the Beatles released their debut album “Please Please Me”; the longest-running TV series in the UK to date, “Doctor Who” (Doctor Who), has yet to usher in any ending.

And there’s one thing that doesn’t seem to be in most people’s memories. In 1963, Herbert A. Gilbert, a worker in an abandoned Pennsylvania factory, invented a “smokeless, non-tobacco cigarette” that involved “using a heated, moist, flavored gas instead of burning tobacco and paper”. This device produces nicotine-free and flavor-enhancing vapor. This is the earliest prototype of electronic cigarettes.

On May 1, 2013, Citigroup released a report listing the top ten disruptive technologies that are about to change the world as we know it. From 3D printing to personalised medicine and even solar power, e-cigarettes are second on this list. Citibank has boldly predicted that in the next few years, e-cigarettes will grow at an annual growth rate of nearly 50%.


The U.S. is by far the largest market for e-cigarettes, although they only account for a small portion of the domestic cigarette market. Citi estimates that the compound annual growth rate (CAG) of this segment will continue to approach 50% over the next few years, depending on regulatory policies and industry penetration into retail.


Herbert Gilbert’s patent (US Patent 3200819. Smokeless non-tobacco cigarette) was granted in 1965. Gilbert’s invention was ahead of its time. While there are some prototypes, it’s barely noticed. Gilbert said in 2013 that today’s e-cigarettes follow the basic design proposed in his original patent. But in an era when the tobacco industry was full of advertising and power, the invention was barely noticed, let alone commercialized.

E-Cigarette Direct published an interview with Gilbert in 2013, as he himself said

Timing can be everything, and I’m ahead of my time. (Timing can be everything and i was ahead of my time)

personal background

Q: What was your background before the invention of e-cigarettes?

I graduated college with a Bachelor of Commerce degree and went straight to work. I am a Korean veteran. My dad had a junkyard in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, where I used to work. As you remember, I’m just a normal, ordinary logical person, and “logic” is my best asset.

Q: Do you smoke yourself?

Of course it was before. Two packs a day for many years. Abruptly stopped cold turkey about 20 years ago.
Design, Prototype and Production

Q: What inspired your designs?

I am a person who likes logic, and logic tells me to define a problem and then develop a solution. And my conclusion is that when you burn leaves and wood even in your own backyard, the result is that no one wants to inhale that smoke into their lungs.
For example, you can chew on lettuce leaves or cinnamon bark…they are good for you or they won’t hurt you…but…if you drain them, grind them and mix them together, put them in a big paper bag and set them on fire, you’re Don’t want anything it releases into your lungs. Simply put, if there is no burn, the problem doesn’t happen. Eureka!
So I had to find a way to put out the fire. Wait…they make bread and cookies by fire at my aunt’s bakery. So what’s the difference? They’re not burnt but just roasted and the aroma is a treat. No one screams, “The oven is on fire!” Get down on the floor and crawl outside. “At this point I happened to remember how tea is brewed. Then the problem can be solved. I have to logically find a way to replace the burning tobacco with heated, moist, flavored steam and paper.

Q: Have you ever built a prototype?

Using the technology available in 1963, I concluded that a battery-powered heat source would do the job, and the first electronic cigarette was born. I did make some prototypes and tried evaporating liquids of various flavors into steam, and it worked fine.

Q: Are there any prototypes left?

Unfortunately, most of my stuff was burned in the Beaver scrap yard warehouse. I didn’t keep any prototypes. But one might see a wood product from Emperor Brands when the brand started advertising in 1963.

Q: How did your design at the time differ from the current e-cigarettes?

None of the e-cigarettes I’ve seen today are not following the basic roadmap laid out in my original patent. If you remove any of the parts shown in my original patent from their vape, these products won’t work. In technical details they may have different positions, different sizes, different control methods. However, they still follow the basic roadmap described in my patented designs.

Q: Why not put the design into production?

What I showed them could be done, but they chose to wait for the patent to expire and then submit their own version. I showed it to chemical companies, pharmaceutical companies and tobacco companies, and they did what they wanted to protect their own markets. I believe that in the past and even today, there are many great inventions that benefit people, and even today, the inventor may be treated like me. As John Cameron pointed out to me, timing can be everything, and I am ahead of its time. (Timing can be everything and i was ahead of my time) For some, that was the most powerful advertising period for Big Tobacco.

Relationship with Big Tobacco

Q: How was your invention received?

It didn’t go well. I know I’m in trouble when I give my stuff to Monsanto Chemicals, and they’ve tried it. I got this disassembled piece of equipment back, which left me with a certain amount of frustration.

Q: So from the beginning, Big Tobacco had a plan?

Big Tobacco didn’t want anything to do with me, they didn’t want anyone to have anything to do with me because they were worried it would become what it is today. If it hadn’t happened in China, I don’t think it would have happened at all.

Q: You brought up an interesting point that was born in America but had to grow in China.

Hon Lik (Han Li) can be supported in China, he is a pharmacist. I’m glad he came out and did this because it saved lives. I don’t care what his name is. When someone asks me this question: what is the difference between my patent and his patent? I’ll answer, look if it has a long beak, webbed feet, wobbles and quacks when it walks, you can call it a moose, but it’s still a duck (laughter) !

Q: What do you think the future holds for Big Tobacco?

The truth will be revealed to the world. Your time to fight the truth is always limited. Eventually, tobacco companies will be phased out and no longer in business, but instead will be in the e-cigarette business. I have confidence in the Human Health Organization that whether or not Big Tobacco will be in the vaping space, they will have a hard time catching us.

Q: There is evidence that Big Tobacco is deliberately suppressing the development of healthy alternatives to tobacco because the production and sale of these products implies an admission that smoking is unhealthy. What do you think about you?

I just brought up what happened to me and my patent fifty years ago. For now, with the major tobacco companies becoming more involved in the vaping industry with their own brands, logically, the situation you’re talking about is not going to happen, and it won’t happen in the future.

Q: In your opinion, are cigarette devices that generate tobacco gas as effective as modern vapor-generating e-cigarettes?

Do not. A major part of a smoker’s addiction is said to be tactile/physical (another part is chemical addiction). So, in my opinion, without the visual effect of vaping that reminds “addicts” of their usual “smoking,” I’m skeptical that it would work effectively. Also, I’d wager that seeing steam as smoke is older than I am. So, feel free to think of this flavorful, healthy steam of mine as smoke, which is my logical take on the subject.
Read the patent application again, “In respiratory disease, under the direction of a physician, inhalation of warm medication into the lungs.” You’ll find this at the end of the first paragraph. It makes no difference because my e-cigarette is a “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette” which happens to be the title of my patent application.

Q: Do you think Hon Lik’s e-cigarette is an evolution of your design, or is it a completely different product?

If it walks like a duck, has webs, a beak-shaped beak, swims in water, looks like a duck, and quacks. Then it is a duck. (If it walks like a duck, has web feet, has a bill, swims in the water, looks like a duck and quacks….its a duck.)

About e-cigarette regulations

Q: How do you feel about the actions taken by governments and anti-smoking groups to restrict or ban the sale of e-cigarettes?

Again logic tells me that it is a combination of lack of education (understanding) and fear of what they perceive to be the unknown. In my opinion, it’s a simple question: “Are you kidding?”
As far as I know, nothing can stop the increase in the number of tobacco smokers, not legislation, special packaging, warnings or even death. And I believe my invention gives us this opportunity for the first time. If you can, please prove me wrong. In my opinion, lawmakers should do everything in their power to help address this, including proving it works. The government needs to help solve this problem. Once they understand that ingested substances can have the opportunity to be completely controlled, then anything deemed bad in e-cigarettes can be removed. Instead of fighting it, they would encourage it to be a complete replacement for cigarettes and some drugs.

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