Vape and Mirrors: The Tech Behind Vaping

When you're taking your new herb vaporizer out of the box, do you stop to think about where vaping came from? Do you think about who came up with the idea and why? You may know where you bought your device from, what's inside, and what its specs are, but do you wonder about the idea of vaping and vaporizers and their respective origins? Most people don't. Vaping and vaporizers are so new they are almost ahistorical. They give off the impression of having appeared overnight. But they also seem like they've been around forever.

Such is the ambiguous position that e-cigarettes and vaporizers occupy. They belong neither to the past nor the future, yet they are so undeniably now. But they do have a history, of course, they do. The history of vaping and of e-cigarettes is a short one, with humble beginnings. But, unlike with other product-inspired revolutions (think the iPod or iPhone), it's not the tech that is the fascinating part. Vaping technology has been around since the 60s, so why is it only now, in 2018, has it started to go mainstream? The answer, as you'll see, has a lot to do with one thing, which has simultaneously hurt and helped vaping: time.

Starting with the Basics

Before we delve any further into the history of vaping tech, let's first establish what we know about vaporizers. Whether you are taking a massive draw from a custom designed and built mech mod or you are taking a discreet pull off of a tiny pod mod, all vaping devices work with similar components, which are:

  • Rechargeable battery - Depending on your device you can either have a built-in, internal battery charged through a USB port or removable batteries like the 18650, 20700 or 21700 variety.
  • Cartridge, tank, cartomizer - Many names are given to your e-juice container. Again, what you're vaping determines what type of container or cartridge you use. The Juul uses pre-filled cartridges, while sub-ohm tanks are refillable and come in varying capacities. Tank section is not so essential to dry herb vaporizer as it is to e-liquid vaporizers, which would use a chamber instead of a tank.
  • Atomizer/coil/heating element - Some kind of heating element is found in all vaporizers and e-cigarettes. Beginner models typically have coils made from either stainless steel or Kanthal coil. Advanced vapers build and design their own coil builds, using a variety of materials and parts.

While there is some variety in between these three elements, they all are present in some form or another within all modern vaping devices. There are even different sub-groups that break off from each of these components. Batteries are a field onto themselves. They garner as much attention and scrutiny by themselves as e-juice flavors, or tank capacity does. Tanks and atomizers have their divisions as well, which are based as much on skill level and experience as your preferred vaping style. But whatever the case, establishing what we know to be the main components of the modern vaporizer, we can then contrast the present with the past. That way we can see how far vaping technology has come since the beginning.

Blowing in the Wind

You can't tell the story of the first electronic vaping device without a light bulb. The reason is that the first patent for a smokeless electronic cigarette had as its heating element, a thin, elongated light bulb. That's right. Herbert A. Gilbert, the man who submitted the patent on April 17, 1965, envisioned a light bulb as what would heat, not burn, the air coming through the section containing the "chemically harmless flavoring preparation" of his original design.

Gilbert was inspired to create a smokeless electronic cigarette because of the smoke that would waft over his neighbor's yard whenever he burnt his yard clippings. The innovation that Gilbert stumbled upon was the need to heat something to its boiling point, without combusting it. Gilbert realized that burning tobacco, like burning leaves, or tree bark, made something that was benign into something toxic and unpleasant. The heat and the material needed to interact somehow without the former causing the latter to burn.

So, a heat source was an essential part of Gilbert's design. And Gilbert imagined a light bulb as a suitable source. That is what you would surmise from looking at his original blueprint. But in the description accompanying his drawing Gilbert doesn't specifically mention a light bulb. He writes that the user would inhale "flavored air" heated by a "suitable heating element." The truth is Gilbert had not decided on what that suitable heating element would be. Further, in the description, Gilbert writes that the section marked as the heating element could be, variously, "a vacuum tube or bulb."

In a detailed interview Gilbert gave in 2016, he doesn't mention what type of heating element he ultimately used in his first prototypes. He does mention it was "battery-powered" but doesn't say what the battery was powering. Funnily enough, when asked if his original design differs from modern-day e-cigarettes, Gilbert had this to say, "there is no electric cigarette today, that I have seen, that does not follow the basic roadmap set forth in my original patent".

Pieces Coming Together

And he's right. You see all the essential components in Gilbert's mock-up: the mouthpiece, the long, cylindrical tube, the moistened flavor cartridge. Later takes on the smokeless cigarette would also employ the "flavored air" concept in their designs. And those didn't even require a power source or atomizer.

What Gilbert's original prototype foresaw were draw-activated vapes. First generation cig-a-likes used small sensors that activated the heating element inside whenever you took a puff. Modern pod mod devices like the Juul work on the same principle. Gilbert's prototype is mostly what he described it as, a roadmap. You could see where the design could go with a few modifications. But all the critical components were laid out for you. So while many point to Gilbert's device as the forebearer to all vapes, that is true mostly in concept. Gilbert realized that combustion was the problem. How other inventors and designers solved, that problem was how vaping technology evolved throughout the years.

Pressing Electricity

Most people may not know this, but there are two fathers of the modern e-cigarette. Everyone cites Hon Lik, the Chinese pharmacist, as the inventor of the contemporary e-cig. But another Chinese scientist, Dr. Yunqiang Xiu is responsible for importantly updating Lik's design. Xiu's design replaced Lik's piezoelectric element (more on that later) and replaced it with what we now accept as standard vaping tech: a wire heating element.

Like with Herbert A. Gilbert, you might know the name "Hon Lik." But your knowledge about the actual device he invented might be lacking. In 2001, Lik was experimenting with vaporization through ultrasound. This manner of vaporization is what you would find in most household humidifiers wherein a "metallic diaphragm vibrate(s) at an ultrasonic frequency in a liquid to create micro-droplets."

Imagine holding a humidifier up to your mouth to inhale vapor! Lik used the same method, but he minimized it. Lik's original design made use of a piezoelectric ultrasound heating component located inside the device. But Lik ultimately settled on resistance heating to vaporize his nicotine solution. Resistance heating is a common phenomenon found in everything from toasters to electric space heaters. You run an electric current through metal that then gives off heat. Sound familiar?

Dr. Xiu's patent (submitted in 2010) was different from Lik's initial idea. Xiu took out the electric circuit board with its high-frequency generator in Lik's design. He also connected all the separate parts to each other. Xiu inserted atomized heating wires into cotton wicks saturated with e-juice. These heating wires connected to independent power sources inside the device. And, unlike the Lik e-cigarette, Xiu used a battery-powered heating element, much like the one Gilbert envisioned in his original design.

Step by Step

Liu's e-cigarettes are also referred to as the second-generation of e-cigs. But, as you probably already know, vaping technology didn't stop there. As the Lik and Xiu e-cigarettes began hitting the international market, a third-generation of vaporizers emerged. They came with replaceable and refillable e-liquid canisters (aka clearomizers, or cartomizers) and offered longer battery life through rechargeable batteries.

Little by little, more advances began appearing. The eGo battery was one such move away from the first e-cigarette designs. The battery type, first introduced by Joyetech, separated the clearomizer or cartomizer section from the battery. These devices, aka vape "pens," were bigger than cig-a-likes but offered better battery life, more customizability. eGo batteries also used integrated circuitry and were the first devices to be button-operated, rather than draw-activated. A lot of these changes were brought on by users modifying their e-cigarette "cig-a-likes" to offer more power and longer battery life.

These new devices were later called "mods" invoking their origin as "modifications" to the original. The arrival of the "mod" signaled the era of the fourth-generation of vaping devices, in which we find ourselves today. Mods can either be regulated or unregulated. The former, aka box mods, is made up of a battery section - the mod - and a tank attachment. Unregulated mods, aka mech mods, contain no circuitry or other electronic parts. Mech mods instead rely on the unregulated power of its battery to heat its coil and thereby produce vapor.

The Material is the Message

But most of these advances were restricted to the world of e-liquid vaping, which culminated with the arrival of the fourth-generation devices. The history of the weed or marijuana vaporizer follows a different track from that of e-cigarettes. But if we take Gilbert's original principle of heat-not-burn and apply it to marijuana plants and flowers, we can see that similar results are possible.

In fact, the best herbal vaporizers use ceramic-walled ovens or heating chambers to produce marijuana vapor. Some devices use either convection or a conduction style of oven; some even use both! Conduction heating applies heat directly to a material, while convection heating blows hot air through a material to releases its essential essences. Both styles of dry herb vaporizers have their supporters and detractors. Some people prefer the simplicity of conduction-style vapes, while others prefer the efficiency of convection-style devices.

The legalization of recreational marijuana in some US states also heralded new types of cannabis by-products like waxes, oils, and concentrates that could also be vaped. These devices also apply the same principles as herbal vaporizers, as well as e-cigarettes. Wax and concentrate pens also make use of an internal chamber. Heat can come from either ceramic or quartz rods with stainless steel wires wrapped around them, or through the walls around the material.

The Way Forward

Innovation and profligacy are mainstays of the vaping industry. New devices hit the market every week and the vaping industry has become a billion-dollar, worldwide presence. While Gilbert, Lik, and Xiu laid down the foundation of vaping, many are excited to see what new modifications await modern vaping devices. Fourth-generation devices allow for the regulation of voltage and wattage. New types of batteries allow for even more high-powered devices. But whatever new vaping devices appear in the future, they will all follow the formational principle of all vaping devices, which Herbert A. Gilbert articulated best in the 1960s: heat, don't burn.

Author: Phyllis Baker is the journalist and blogger specializing in health issues. Currently, she manages public relations for the quitting smoking community.