People have been inhaling nicotine for a very long time – at least 5,000 years, and probably more. It all began in South America, originally for religious rituals then later for enjoyment. Tobacco was introduced to Europe in 1560, and by the mid-17th century had spread across most of the world.

For most of this long history the main method of smoking tobacco was in a pipe. The earliest pipes are beautiful objects, with bowls hand-carved from stone then polished; many are engraved with complex designs. Carving pipes from stone is time-consuming work, though, and as social smoking became more popular people started looking for easier solutions. The answer was clay, first used by Native Americans and later adopted by Europeans. Most European pipes were made of clay until the mid-19th century.

Clay pipes were cheap, but also fragile. Soon European pipemakers started looking for more durable materials. Meerschaum, a light and fine-grained white stone, became popular in the 18th century. It can be carved into intricate shapes, so many meerschaum pipes are highly decorated; bowls carved into the shape of a head are a favourite design.

The alternative to meerschaum is briar. Cut from the roots of the tree, this wood is hard and naturally heat-resistant, so makes a perfect material for pipe bowls. Most modern pipes are briar, although heatproof plastics are also popular.

nicotine history
Segar & Snuff Parlour, Covent Garden, London.

Smoking cigars and cigarettes

Pipes are fiddly, though. They need maintenance, which is why pipe smokers carry lots of paraphernalia around. Clay pipes were also unreliable – they broke too easily, and what could you do if your pipe broke?

One answer was to roll some cured tobacco leaves into a cylinder, put one end in your mouth and set fire to the other, creating a crude cigar. These were gradually refined into what they are today, with a high-quality leaf used as a wrapper.

Cigars were easier to use than pipes, but being individually hand-made were also expensive. The same applied to the first cigarettes, which were similar to cigars but with a paper wrapper instead of a leaf one. Most smokers continued to use pipes.

Then, in the 1880s, the modern cigarette-making machine started to appear in US factories. The American tobacco industry had been making around 40,000 cigarettes a day; this quickly jumped to more than 4 million. Less than 1% of European and American adults smoked cigarettes in 1900, but it was already rising rapidly. By the 1950s it had peaked at over 50%, and pipes and cigars had become niche products. If you smoked, you probably smoked cigarettes.


A problem emerges

Unfortunately it turned out that smoking any form of tobacco was about the least healthy thing you could do. By the mid-1960s tobacco had been linked to heart disease, cancer and a range of other issues, and the global anti—smoking campaign was getting into gear. For the next few decades smoking rates fell steadily. The problem was that many people – about 20% in most countries – kept on smoking despite the health risks. Despite information campaigns, health warnings and eye-watering taxes they just kept puffing away.

Finally, around 2002, a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik started to wonder if there might be a safer way to do this. It had been known for decades that people smoke for the nicotine, but die from the smoke. Hon, a smoker himself, decided to invent something that would deliver the nicotine without the toxic chemicals you get when you burn just about anything.

vaping Shoreditch

Vaping is born

After experimenting with ultrasonic vaporisers, Hon found that a simple battery-powered heating coil worked best. His first device went on sale in China in 2003 and within a couple of years was available in Europe. That’s when the technology really started developing. Enthusiasts who liked the concept, but didn’t think early devices were good enough, made their own; Chinese companies noticed this, designed improved versions and marketed them around the world.

Now, a decade after e-cigarettes started to become popular in the west, they’ve already gone through three generations of technology and changed out of all recognition. Improved electronics have made them safer through innovations like temperature control, as well as improving performance.

Technology – especially rechargeable batteries and integrated circuits – has driven the vaping revolution, and that’s nurtured a very creative industry. For example Shoreditch sells e-liquid refills through a subscription service that uses web tools to let customers easily manage their orders. They’ve even designed innovative packaging that fits through a letterbox, so your parcel will be delivered even if you’re not at home.

After thousands of years of smoking tobacco, vapour products have emerged as a real alternative with millions of users worldwide. They’re estimated to be 95% safer than cigarettes, and at least as effective as traditional quit aids – and, as long as the technology is allowed to develop, they’ll probably keep getting safer and better.