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Written by: Luke Shiffer
Written on: December 14th, 2012
Tags: electrical engineering, health & medicine, history & society, lifestyle, mechanical engineering
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About the Author
Luke is working towards his undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering and Computer Science at USC with a minor in Video Game Design and Management. Luke plans to pursue a doctorate in Computer Science after finishing his undergrad studies.
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Volume XV Issue I > Smoking without Smoke: Engineering the Cigarette
Electronic cigarettes deliver the same nicotine as traditional cigarettes but with fewer additives. They offer themselves as an alternative to traditional cigarettes and possibly as an effective nicotine replacement therapy. Being that they are less harmful to our environment, electronic cigarettes are a strong example of how engineers are seeking to reshape our world for the better.


Tobacco has been in use as early as 700 AD, but only in the last decade have engineers been able to revolutionize how tobacco is smoked [1]. Traditional tobacco smoking is not only addictive, but it also elevates the user’s risk of developing lung cancer and emphysema. Electronic cigarettes may provide smokers with a new method of kicking the habit and a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes, which are often laden with toxic chemicals like arsenic and cadmium [2]. Beyond the potential of possibly eradicating traditional cigarettes, if not cigarette smoking in general, the use of electronic cigarettes spares the public from the nuisance that is second-hand smoke without exiling smokers from society. From the technology behind electronic cigarettes, to their immediate and future possibilities, this small device is a huge feat in engineering.

History of Tobacco Use

Evidence marks the earliest use of tobacco back to the Maya in 700 AD [1]. Fig. 1 shows a Mayan flask that is believed to have housed tobacco leaves [1]. The earliest known written records of tobacco use come from the time of Christopher Columbus’s exploration of the New World. In 1492, on the island of Hispaniola, Columbus and his crew were first introduced to tobacco by the natives [3]. Within the following decades, tobacco use spread throughout Europe. It eventually reached Asia and Africa during the 1600s as well.
Broken Sphere/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: Mayan flask that houses tobacco.
Tobacco use, though far more accepted then than today, has always been an area of controversy. One of the first articles opposing tobacco use came from James I of England in 1604, called “Counterblast to Tobacco” [3]. James described tobacco as being “a custome loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, [and] dangerous to the lungs” [3]. Other rulers also opposed tobacco use, like Turkey’s ruler from 1623 to 1640, Murad the Cruel. Those who used tobacco under Murad’s rule were liable to be hanged or beheaded [3]. The first scientific anti-smoking movement occurred in Nazi Germany after German researchers discovered a link between smoking and lung cancer [4][5].
Today we hear not only of the dangers of smoking to the user, but also to those around the smoker. This new focus on the danger of environmental tobacco smoke has brought about many laws that have banned smoking not only from bars and restaurants but parks and sidewalks. In some areas smoking is prohibited even in one’s own apartment, including the private balcony [6]. These restrictions have created a segment of society that might feel exiled or disenfranchised, or in the least inconvenienced. With over a billion smokers worldwide, around one in three adults, that’s a lot of people to crowd at the edge of society [7]. But considering tobacco is responsible for six million deaths a year and up to half of all tobacco users die due to tobacco-related illnesses, it is society as a whole that is missing out on all the wasted human potential and losing loved ones [8].
Enter two engineers, not looking to ease the inconvenience of a smoker’s walk to the far end of a parking lot to light up a cigarette but rather to provide a safer alternative to that cigarette—an alternative that would not only allow the smoker to continue smoking with less risk but perhaps even assist the smoker hoping to quit. First released in China in 2004, the electronic cigarette was inspired by hope, loss, and even some early designs from inventor Herbert A. Gilbert, which are pictured in Fig. 2 [11].

Engineering a Dream to Reality

Dr. Sam Han, who holds a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering as well as in Material Engineering, and Hon Lik, who is a pharmacist, are both credited with engineering the first electronic cigarette [9][10]. Both had a dream of helping others quit smoking. Han, a heavy smoker for over forty years, wanted a way to help himself and others quit [9]. Lik, after losing his father to lung cancer, wanted a safer and cleaner way to smoke [10].
Figure 2: H. A. Gilbert's 1963 designs for an electronic cigarette.