Humanities › History & Culture Who Invented Electronic Cigarettes? Share Flipboard Email Print WIN-Initiative/Riser/Getty Images History & Culture Inventions Famous Inventions Famous Inventors Patents & Trademarks Invention Timelines Computers & The Internet American History African American History African History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Genealogy Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Mary Bellis Inventions Expert Mary Bellis covered inventions and inventors for ThoughtCo for 18 years. She is known for her independent films and documentaries, including one about Alexander Graham Bell. our editorial process Mary Bellis Updated January 27, 2019 Next time you see someone smoking in a nonsmoking area, and you are just about to ask them to put it out, well here is one reason to do a double check first. An electronic cigarette looks almost exactly like a real cigarette, and it is easy to mistake someone using an electronic cigarette for smoking a real cigarette. However, it is a battery operated device that allows one to inhale vaporized nicotine and simulates the experience of smoking a real cigarette. How Electronic Cigarettes Work Unlike a regular cigarette, you don't need matches to smoke an e-cig, they are powered by a rechargeable lithium battery. Hidden inside the e-cig is a chamber that contains miniaturized electronics and an atomizer. The function of the tiny atomizer is to vaporize the liquid nicotine turning it into an aerosol mist, and it is activated by the inhaling action of the user, by "taking a puff." The liquid nicotine is hidden inside another refillable chamber that on the outside looks like the filter of a cigarette, where the smoker places their mouth to inhale. When a person smokes an electronic cigarette, they look exactly like they are smoking a tobacco filled cigarette. By inhaling, the smoker pulls the liquid nicotine into the atomizer chamber, the electronics heat the liquid and vaporizes it and passes the vapor on to the smoker. The nicotine vapor enters the smokers' lungs, and voila, a nicotine high occurs. The vapor even looks like cigarette smoke. Other features of the e-cig may include an LED light at the end of the cigarette that emulates the flame of burning tobacco. Invention In 1963, Herbert Gilbert patented "a smokeless non-tobacco cigarette." In his patent, Gilbert described how his device worked, by "replacing burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavored air." Gilbert's device involved no nicotine, smokers of Gilbert's device enjoyed flavored steam. Attempts to commercialize Gilbert's invention failed, and his product fell into obscurity. However, it deserves mention as the earliest patent for an electronic cigarette. Better known is the invention of Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik, who patented the first nicotine based electronic cigarette in 2003. The following year, Hon Lik was the first person to manufacture and sell such a product, first in the Chinese market and then internationally. Are They Safe? Electronic cigarettes are no longer considered a smoking cessation tool as they were once promoted as being. Nicotine is addictive. However, e-cigs do not have the harmful tars that regular commercial cigarettes do contain, but unfortunately, they might have other harmful chemical ingredients included. The toxic substance found in an examination of e-cigs by the FDA included things like diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in antifreeze. There is also controversy over how to regulate electronic cigarettes, age restrictions, and if they should or should not be included in smoking bans. Secondhand vapors could be just as bad as secondhand smoke. Some countries have banned the sale and marketing of e-cigs entirely. In September 2010, the FDA issued some warning letters to electronic cigarette distributors for various violations of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act including “violations of good manufacturing practices, making unsubstantiated drug claims, and using the devices as delivery mechanisms for active pharmaceutical ingredients.” A Booming Business If electronic cigarettes do continue to remain legal in the United States and other countries, there are huge profits to be made. According to Forbes.com manufacturers make between $250 million to $500 million estimated annually and while that is a small portion of the $100 billion US tobacco market, a government survey found that 2.7% of U.S. adults had tried e-cigarettes by 2010, up from 0.6% a year earlier, the kind of statistics that potential trends are made of.