Ori­gins: Fa­ther of the e-cig­a­rette


Smithsonian Magazine - - Features -

IN 1963, A YEAR IN WHICH U.S. smok­ers burned through a then-record 523 bil­lion cig­a­rettes, a scrap metal dealer from Beaver Falls, Penn­syl­va­nia, in­vented a rev­o­lu­tion­ary al­ter­na­tive. “I call it the ‘Smoke­less,’” Her­bert A. Gil­bert, then a two-pack-a-day man, said of his lit­tle black alu­minum cylin­der with a sil­ver tip—the world’s first e-cig­a­rette. Cre­ated a year be­fore the sur­geon gen­eral’s un­prece­dented “Smok­ing and Health” re­port link­ing cig­a­rettes to lung can­cer and other dis­eases, the Smoke­less con­tained a liq­uid that was warmed by a bat­tery-pow­ered de­vice, cre­at­ing a va­por that a per­son in­haled. Gil­bert touted the de­vice’s tremen­dous po­ten­tial in pre­vent­ing dis­ease and death from to­bacco use, and even pro­moted it for weight loss. Di­eters, he said, could “smoke their fa­vorite food.” Among the ten va­por fla­vors he con­cocted were mint, rum and, his per­sonal fa­vorite, cin­na­mon.

But Gil­bert never found a com­pany will­ing to mass-pro­duce his in­ven­tion, and therein lies a clas­sic Amer­i­can tale of an in­spired tin­kerer way ahead of his time: 55 years later, e-cig­a­rettes are a $10 bil­lion in­dus­try world­wide. Gil­bert never made any money on his patent, now long ex­pired.

Ac­knowl­edg­ment can be its own re­ward, though, and Gil­bert’s patent has been cited hun­dreds of times by other in­ven­tors, in­clud­ing Hon Lik, con­sid­ered the fa­ther of to­day’s e-cig­a­rette. Gil­bert, who is 87 and lives in Flor­ida now, sounded pleased in a phone in­ter­view with Smith­so­nian, and said he was proud to be as­so­ci­ated with an in­ven­tion that has helped peo­ple quit smok­ing. “The only sub­stan­tial thing I re­ceived was the sat­is­fac­tion of sav­ing mil­lions of lives,” he says.

Not that va­p­ing is harm­less, of course. In Septem­ber, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion warned that mil­lions of teenagers are be­com­ing ad­dicted to e-cig­a­rettes, which carry their own health risks and could lead to a new gen­er­a­tion of cig­a­rette smok­ers. But Gil­bert’s orig­i­nal in­ven­tion can’t re­ally be blamed for that prob­lem. It had no nico­tine.

In 1963, Her­bert A. Gil­bert (above: shown in his 30s) filed a patent for “a safe and harm­less meansfor and method of smok­ing.”

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