How quickly we forget the fun of yesteryear. Radio stories? Silent film? Today’s storytelling via streaming web has us forgetting old-fashioned entertainment at lightning speed. In the same vein, we’ve gotten so engulfed in modern smoke technology that we barely remember the basics that got the good times rolling. Because there is no “Smoking History Month,” we’ve decided there’s no time like the present to put together a simple timeline of the most pivotal innovations in smoking history. These dates are based on the first reliably confirmed appearance of each device, whether by patent or artistic depiction. Now it’s time for a little ancient inspiration.
As early as 5000 BC for cannabis and 4000 BC for tobacco, smoking enters the scene. Little do these smokers know they’ve just sparked the evolution into today’s impressive array of smoking essentials. While tobacco was traditionally chewed and snuffed, other aromatic spices were used as incense or otherwise smoked openly as in Herodotos’ Ancient Greece account from about 400 BC:
“The Scythians take some of this hemp-seed and throw it upon the red-hot stones; At once it begins to smoke, giving off a vapour unsurpassed by any vapour-bath one could find in Greece. The Scythians enjoy it so much that they howl with pleasure.”
The first pipe. Primitive cone-like designs were first confirmed in 483 BC although they’re believed to have made their appearance even earlier on the timeline. The chillum’s first known use (initially designed to be held by the smoker and lit by the person sitting next to them in the circle) is credited to the ancient monks of India in a tradition preserved by some Buddhists even to this day. Since their creation, the pipe has been crafted from clay, wood, stone, ivory, all the way up to today’s signature scientific glass.
The 900s were privileged with the pleasure of the cigar. Defined as a tightly wound bundle of tobacco, it’s said the Mayans first set the trend using palm and plantain leaves bound with string--long before cigars burst into popularity as spices started spiraling the globe. Today the craft has evolved as far as “Magars” and reusable “glass blunts,” while more traditional tobacco cigars remain popular for celebration and status.
Rich folks crafted their first water pipes with fine glass and precious metals, while commoners stuck to coconut shell bases with bamboo tubes. The bong, from the Thai word, “Baung,” is a direct descendant of the hookah. It’s unknown exactly when people started “sweetening” tobacco with honey, molasses, or most recently vegetable glycerin. The hookah still persists as a trendy activity for groups at the hookah lounge and through new electronic interpretations, while the bong reaches new levels through percolation.
French explorer, Jean Nicot, introduced tobacco into France’s high society for its medicinal effects. By 1560, the ambassador had the tobacco plant, Nicotiana, officially named after him. Now his namesake is used to refer to the chemical nicotine that makes up about 3% of the plant’s dry weight.
Long Stem Pipes:
While chillums got the ball rolling, the original pipe style has evolved into a variety of handhelds over the centuries that followed. Pipe design continues to adapt to the popular material of the time and place, like the famously affordable corn cob pipe introduced in 1860s America. The long stem silhouette of the 1600s were inspired by arched clay Dutch Gouda pipes or the Kiseru’s streamline silhouette of Japan. These are what we most closely refer to today as the “Gandalf” or--when shortened--a “Sherlock,” usually for those who prefer an old school milieu. Today’s bestselling pipes are the personal glass pipes that boomed in the1960s era and are now made with scientific glass.
We mentioned materials such as palm and plantain leaves used in primitive rolling methods, but the first official rolling paper company wasn’t formed until 1660 by the Lacroix family. The brand’s first major contract came in 1736 for none other than Napoleon. This led to the first commercial rolled cigarette in the 1860s, and the cigarette-making machine in 1881. These pre-rolled tobacco cigarettes boomed in the 1920s but have since declined in popularity. Today’s hand-rollers can choose between papers made from wood, flax, rice, hemp, corn, or even fine gold!
In 1810 the percolator made its entrance through coffee-making. The first percolator bong is unclear, but at some point the water pipe and physicist Sir Benjamin Thompson’s downflow cycling method joined forces to change the game forever.
Though the first successful e-cig sprouted from a Beijing pharmacist in 2003, the original patent -- titled “Nicotine Vaporizer” -- was filed way back in 1927 (to become official in 1930). The first vaporizer patent was followed by a series of others, all of which never seemed to make it to market with the success we see today.
Far from the vapor baths of Ancient Greece, electronic vaporizers started to regain momentum in the 1990s. Then the Volcano Vaporizer entered in 2000 as a revolutionary forced air device. The landmark design propelled a newfound enthusiasm for the clean drags of vapor, now understood to purify smoke of toxins with even more power than the water pipe. The long-standing trend started with the classic desktop vape powered by wall outlet, and have since advanced to the millennial’s battery-powered vape pen/e-cig silhouettes.
Technology’s taken a focus on honing existing devices since the advent of the e-cig in ‘03.
Through a somewhat bizarre trip, smoke culture has connected humanity with a thread through hundreds of generations--all seeking and savoring the same purposes and pleasures. Next time you take a puff, appreciate the ever-changing lifestyles that started the trend toward your current smoking device!