This Day in History: Herbert A. Gilbert Invents the Electronic Cigarette
According to many sources, 1963 is known as, “The year everything happened.” This year Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech, Beatlemania had just begun and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Three landmark events where people can look back and remember what they were doing at that exact moment in time. However, a critical piece of history has been left out.
On April 17, 1963, Herbert A. Gilbert filed the very first electronic cigarette patent. He called his invention the “Smokeless Non-Tobacco Cigarette.” Herb credits the inspiration behind his invention to simply save lives by replacing dangerous tobacco cigarettes with a safer non-combustible alternative. Herb’s patent was granted on August 17, 1965.
How Many Lives Could Have Been Saved?
Let’s look at the facts. Tobacco cigarettes are consumed seven trillion times a year, with a total of 1.4 billion smokers worldwide. In the U.S. alone, smoking cigarettes contributes to $200 billion in medical expenses, and is the leading cause of preventable deaths each year. The numbers are staggering; 480,000 Americans and a total of 6 million people globally are killed each year from smoking and tobacco-related diseases.
So, if Herb’s invention caught on 53 years ago and smokers switched to his safer alternative, he could have helped save more than 50 million lives worldwide.
To celebrate this anniversary, we sat down with Herb to discuss his invention, staking his claim in history and what he hopes to contribute to public health as a founding partner at the Human Health Organization.
Vaporcade: Thank you for sitting down with us today, and congratulations on the anniversary of your patent filing. To jump right into this, did you ever smoke?
Herb: I was a two pack a day smoker in the 60s, everybody smoked back then.
Vaporcade: What was your motivation behind inventing the electronic cigarette?
Herb: My wife’s friend, who was a smoker, was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer. And I said, if that’s caused by smoking tobacco there has to be something better. Let’s find something to replace it, save some lives. And that’s it.
Vaporcade: Did your friend’s prognosis make you quit smoking?
Herb: I didn’t stop. I didn’t have anything to switch to and it took me a while to get the first prototypes together.
Vaporcade: Tell us about your initial prototypes.
Herb: The first prototypes didn’t have an electric battery and it still had fire. We used to have pocket hand warmers back then. I made a miniature hand warmer with platinum wiring and fiber moistened with flavoring compound liquid. I lit the hand warmer, it glowed and produced the steam I wanted. Or if you want to call it vapor. But I still used fire.
Vaporcade: So how did your first attempt using fire evolve into the smokeless design you submitted in your patent application?
Herb: I knew there’s got to be a better way to do it. Relatives on my father’s side owned a bakery. When you went in, you smelled the aroma. I knew then what I really had to do is bake it, don’t burn it. And that’s how it went from there. I decided to take a small battery and power a light bulb to supply the heat and turn the flavoring compound liquid into moist, heated, flavored steam.
Vaporcade: So not only did you create the first electronic cigarette, but you also created the first e-liquid, which has turned into an entire business in itself. Tell us about creating your first e-liquid.
Herb: I knew some people who supplied the flavoring compounds. They were approved for food so I thought OK, let’s try this. If it had any possibility of being carcinogenic like tobacco cigarettes, I did not want to use it. My friends gave me the flavoring compounds to try. Mine didn’t even contain nicotine.
Vaporcade: I must know what was your first e-liquid flavor?
Herb: Cinnamon, I like cinnamon.
Vaporcade: How was your invention received?
Herb: I was stonewalled with this. I knew I’d be in trouble when I gave my stuff to Monsanto Chemicals and they tried it. I got the device back in pieces. There was a certain amount of frustration on my part.
Vaporcade: So right from the beginning Big Tobacco had a plan?
Herb: Big Tobacco didn’t want to have anything to do with me and they didn’t want anyone else to have anything to do with me for fear that it would become what it has become today. If it hadn’t happened in China, I don’t think it would have happened at all.
Vaporcade: You bring up an interesting point, it was born an America and had to grow in China.
Herb: Hon Lik in China had backing, and he was a pharmacist. I’m glad he came out and did it, because it saved lives. I don’t care what he called it. When somebody asked me about it, the difference between my patent and his I said, look if it has a long bill, webbed feet, waddles when it walks and says quack, quack, quack, you can call it a moose, but it’s still a duck (laughter)!
Vaporcade: Let’s get back to why you didn’t you put nicotine in your electronic cigarette and talk about the dangers of tobacco.
Herb: People blamed nicotine and didn’t make the separation that nicotine isn’t bad, it’s the combustion that is dangerous. So I didn’t put nicotine in it. The tobacco, I don’t know what was in the ground they grew it in, what fertilizer they used and I don’t know what bugs lived in it. I got to the place where I said look, if you took two cigarettes out of the same pack and you analyzed what happens when you burn them, they’d be different.
Vaporcade: Why do you think it’s difficult for legislatures to differentiate between tobacco cigarettes and electronic cigarettes?
Herb: They don’t want to.
Vaporcade: What do you think the future holds for Big Tobacco?
Herb: The truth will come out. You can only battle the truth so long. Eventually the tobacco cigarette companies will come around and go out of business, but stay in the e-cig business. I have confidence in the Human Health Organization, and no matter if Big Tobacco stays in the e-cig business, they are going to have a hard time catching up to us.
Vaporcade: You are a founding member of the Human Health Organization; how have you and the team been contributing to Public Health?
Herb: We are applying 21st century technology to my 20th century invention. It can only go in one direction. I’m very fortunate. It may have taken 50 years, but when I met John Cameron and he said, “we’re going to make this, we’re going to save lives and I want you to be a part of the team,” I never left it.
Vaporcade: Anything else you want to add?
Herb: Scientists keep doing study after study with positive outcomes, and there are still people who cannot differentiate between tobacco cigarettes and electronic cigarettes. Just wait, the truth will come out. More and more smokers will at least try e-cigs and if you like it, it can help you. Anybody that helps us spread the truth and save lives, we appreciate it.
To pay homage to Herb, we named our 1963® brand of premier electronic cigarettes and cigars in honor of the year of his invention.