Vaping has come a long way since 2007. I'd venture to guess that the majority of current vapers started vaping well after some serious innovations occurred in the vaping industry. While some of us remember replacing cartridge filler with blue aquarium filter and 1.5Ω “low-resistance” atomizers fondly as a right-of-passage, it's important for newer vapers to understand where it all started. By reflecting on generations of vaping technology past, it's easier to understand how current technology came to be and why it works the way it does.
The first e-cigarettes were almost exclusively cig-a-likes. Generally of poor quality, these early models' greatest contribution was mostly to spark interest and act as a proof-of-concept demonstrating the potential of vape devices. Short battery life, poor vapor production, bottom-of-the-barrel e-liquid, and rampant defects prevented Gen. 1 e-cigarettes from becoming wildly popular. In addition, there were few, if any, American vendors at the time, which made acquiring early e-cigarettes much more difficult for many people. Most hardware and e-liquid was manufactured in China. Not to mention, brick-and-mortar shops were nonexistent. With e-cigarettes being of such poor quality and difficult to obtain, it would be several more years before vapor products started to gain traction.
Gen. 1 e-cigarettes were mostly three pieces: the battery, the atomizer, and the cartridge. The atomizer screwed into the battery, and the cartridge was press-fit into the atomizer. The cartridge would be pre-filled with e-liquid, which would feed into the atomizer. The juice capacity was generally 8-12 drops, and would last about the same amount of time as an analogue; about 20 puffs. The atomizer featured a “bridge,” which was a piece of stainless steel mesh which protruded into the cartridge and fed e-liquid to the coil. Some cartridges could be refilled, but with e-liquid being hard to find and relatively expensive, it was much more convenient to purchase replacement pre-filled cartridges. The absorbent material within the cartridge, “polyfill,” would gradually get matted and worn out, contributing to reduced wicking and poor performance. In addition, strands of polyfill fiber would get tangled in the bridge, making for a mess overall.
Some of the more clever vapers at the time discovered that blue aquarium filter worked much better. It was cheaper than replacing cartridges, and had a texture similar to a sponge except it was more porous. With no strands and resistance to matting, “blue foam” is one of the first examples of user modification to e-cigarettes, and it led to more innovation further down the road.
Some vapers weren't satisfied with early cigalikes whatsoever, and determined that they could make better ones themselves. E-cigarettes are literally the simplest electronic device that's possible to make. It's a power source, a resistor, and a switch at it's most basic form. To combat the short battery life of a cigalike, some vapers modified flashlights. Not only did flashlights already run off of a similar battery, but the switch was already included. All that was required was to swap out the bulb with threading that would be compatible with an atomizer. The end result was a “mod,” which is a term the industry still uses to describe the majority of vaping devices. These early flashlight mods used a battery with the same chemistry as cigalikes, but could have up to 10x the battery life. In addition, these batteries were readily available, relatively inexpensive, and could be swapped out when depleted and recharged externally.
Eventually, vapers started getting more creative. Being that e-cigarettes were so simple, you could make a mod out of almost anything. People started using project boxes and battery boxes, wiring in their own custom switches, and sometimes even experimenting with potentiometers to incorporate variable voltage functionality.
Around this time, the first dedicated vape shops started opening online. Many sold their own custom mods, e-liquid, and cigalikes imported from China. With the American e-cigarette market starting to develop, variety and quality of vape devices started to improve, and innovation ignited.
After a round of feedback of Gen. 1 products, Gen. 2 saw a huge increase in variety, but not necessarily in quantity. Variable voltage devices were few and far between, and cigalikes still dominated the market. Marketing, especially on the internet, grew and saw the rise of some well-known cigalike brands that still exist today.
While some found satisfaction in mods, many people found them either prohibitively expensive given the quality and reliability, or too gaudy to be practical. As such, mods remained a niche market while cigalikes and eGo-style devices found their place among the majority of vapers. An increase in the size of the battery of the eGo sparked the beginning of the migration from cigalikes. While cigalikes always had and will have their place, they will never be as popular as they were in Gen.1 and Gen. 2.
With the advent of the eGo, many new atomizers became popular, such as clearomizers and cartomizers. Cartomizers were similar in appearance to atomizers, but were single components which were filled with liquid, but also included a coil. Although they were meant to be disposable, cartomizers were easy to refill and lasted just as long as atomizers for a fraction of the price. And because of larger batteries entering the market, cartomizers were available in many different sizes, allowing vapers to find their own preferred balance between size and capacity.
Shortly after, clearomizers hit the market. These found popularity mainly due to the selection of colors and the ability to see how much liquid was remaining. Clearomizers were generally made of plastic and were very cheap and easily damaged. Yet, they were cheap enough that most vapers didn't mind buying replacements. After a time, clearomizers with replaceable coils came to market. These top-coil clearomizers were the first atomizers to allow the replacement of coils without having to replace the entire atomizer; a design still popular today. Gen.1 atomizers were still popular among a select few, although most had replaced the cartridge with a drip tip. Instead of filling a cartridge, you would drip 2-4 drops right onto the atomizer through the mouthpiece. This arguably offered the best flavor at the cost of convenience, but it's where the term “drip tip” comes from. The majority of mouthpieces are no longer used to drip, but are still referred to as “drip tips.”
During this time, rebuildable atomizers, or RBAs, began to emerge out of a desire for a higher quality experience. Throughout vaping's history, the advancement of RBAs has run parallel to that of other atomizers and devices. Genesis tanks and a few dripping atomizers were the only styles available at the time, and were generally expensive and difficult to set up. The 2 main drawbacks of RBAs were cost of entry and learning curve. The initial cost was usually offset by the reduced price of upkeep, as wicking material and wire were cheaper than having to continuously buy and replace coils.
Early rebuildable dripping atomizers (RDAs) were more well-made than cartomizers and clearomizers of the time, but nowhere near what exists today. Being more rare and generally made in smaller batches, it wasn't uncommon for RDAs to cost upwards of $100. However, they were the cornerstone of vaping innovation and many of today's atomizers owe their inspiration to vapers who took the leap and began experimenting early. Many found the price and learning curve for an RBA was a fair price to pay for the best vape experience of the time. Some would argue this still applies today.
On the other end of the RBA spectrum, we have rebuildable tank atomizers (RTAs). The first RTA design was the Genesis. Genesis tanks were notoriously difficult to build, tended to leak if not held upright, and required a perfectly horizontal orientation when being used. They required the use of a stainless steel mesh wick, which had to be oxidized first in order to make sure it was non-conductive. Genesis tanks were top-coil tanks, and e-liquid had to travel up the stainless steel wick to the coil, which is why it needed to be tilted 90 degrees when vaping. But again, all these drawbacks were reasonable for many vapers back then because of the exceptional flavor when built correctly.
Keep in mind, lung-hitting, or direct-lung vaping, was not conceived of at this time. Virtually every atomizer was created with small, non-adjustable airflow, and that's the general theme of Gen. 2. Vaping starts to move away from cigalikes and towards eGos and mods. RBAs make their first appearance. Cartomizers and clearomizers explode in popularity and lay the foundation for how atomizers work. In addition, variable voltage, and later variable wattage, become the standard for many mods. Cigalikes and eGo batteries were fixed at a constant 3.7V, requiring you to buy atomizers of varying resistances to get more or less vapor and heat. With variable voltage, resistance options became less important since you could adjust your heat on the mod itself. Soon after, variable wattage began to overtake variable voltage, mostly for convenience and consistency purposes. Either increasing voltage or decreasing resistance is a somewhat roundabout way of increasing wattage, or power. Variable wattage mods ensured that you experience the same vape with every drag, compensating for small fluctuations in resistance due to heat, or even allowing you to change atomizers without adjusting any settings.
Most variable voltage and variable wattage mods at the time were tube-shaped, with a select few box mods being custom-made by hobbyist or enthusiast vapers on a small scale, and sometimes being sold online. Most variable mods were expected to meet a few unwritten guidelines, such as firing from 3W to 15W and/or 3V to 6V, requiring atomizers to be 1.2Ω or higher, and having an amp limit of 2.5A. These specifications were perfectly fine for 99% of atomizers at the time, but towards the end of Gen. 2, rebuilding started to take off due to the advent of sub-ohm vaping.
Rebuilders were coming up with new ways to improve their vape experience by modifying their atomizers, particularly the airflow. It wasn't long before drilling out larger airflow holes, dropping nicotine strengths, and lung-hitting became the go-to vaping style for enthusiasts. In order to maximize vapor production, rebuilders also started building sub-ohm coils, or coils with resistances lower than 1Ω. Since regulated mods only fired resistances down to 1.2Ω, vapers started seeking out unregulated mods, particularly mechanical mods. Mechanical mods are made with no wiring, and use craftsmanship and a mechanical switch to provide power directly from the battery to the atomizer. With no board to regulate the device, resistances are only limited by what is safe for the battery. Due to the technical knowledge required to safely use mechanical mods with sub-ohm coils, sub-ohm vaping wasn't popular with the majority of vapers. But like many other aspects of Gen. 2, the classic mech-and-RDA setup laid the groundwork for many of the trends we see today. Thus begins the transition into Gen. 3.
Gen. 3 sees the further development of Gen. 2 technology. Cartomizers get improved with an additional coil, and are modified to fit into tanks, called DCTs. Clearomizers have their coils moved from the top of the tank to the bottom, alleviating many of the dry hits by improving wicking. RBAs continue to improve and gain popularity, and mechanical mods surge in popularity. Gen. 3 also saw the largest increase in people taking up vaping, due to the quality and variety of vaping devices which now started truly meeting expectations.
Bottom-coil clearomizers and RBAs dominated Gen. 3. For the mass market, bottom-coil clearomizers offered a nearly endless variety of shapes, colors, coils, etc. Over time, many plastic clearomizers were replaced with glass. In addition, larger varieties (tanks) became popular, and would eventually replace clearomizers for most vapers. With tanks and clearomizers lasting longer due to better build quality, coil technology was able to flourish. Many manufacturers designed their own proprietary coils, with each claiming to be the best, and while many vapers eventually found their favorites, most coils were very similar. The overall design wouldn't change drastically until Gen. 4, but Gen. 3 did see an increase in coil consistency, along with improvements designed to reduce leaking.
Meanwhile, mechanical mods and RBAs were all the rage, as this was the only way to effectively vape sub-ohm. RDAs began offering much wider airflow that didn't require modification to blow clouds. Chinese manufacturers had a hard time keeping up with innovation, and rarely produced quality RDAs or mechanical mods, which required a level of craftsmanship that China just wasn't equipped for. As a result, authentic mechanical mods and RBAs were very expensive, with mods costing upwards of $200 and atomizers costing $80 at a minimum. In a rush to capture the market, China began cloning authentic mods and atomizers. For a fraction of the price, you could experience high-end vaping at the cost of build quality. For many vapers, this was the only option since few people had the resources to spend $250 on a new setup.
Batteries, and 18650 batteries in particular, became the single-most popular battery size and the technology needed to improve in order to keep up with vaping. With people vaping lower and lower resistances, batteries needed higher amp limits to remain safe. While high-amp batteries generally had a low capacity at first, over time, developments in battery chemistry have allowed capacity to almost double while retaining the same 20A – 30A limit.
However, even with being able to get everything you needed to vape sub-ohm affordably, many people just weren't familiar with how to do it, and do it safely. There was no shortage of guides on the internet, but some people just weren't comfortable with it, and it remained this way for over a year. You had the enthusiast market who used mechanical mods and RDAs, and had a working knowledge of Ohm's Law and battery safety. Everyone else was using variable mods or eGo-style devices, cartomizers, clearomizers, or tanks. The enthusiasts were mostly cloud chasers, and everyone else was stuck with mouth-to-lung vaping.
Of course, there were some exceptions such as the Kayfun. The Kayfun was a rebuildable tank (one of the first that wasn't Genesis-style) which was completely geared towards flavor and MTL vaping. Most RDAs at the time could also be built to a higher resistance with the airflow closed off in order to MTL, but they were primarily designed for DL vaping.
Eventually, 2 and 2 finally added up to 4, and 2 things happened: first, variable mods that could fire sub-ohm were made available, and would become more affordable over time, and sub-ohm vaping would come to the mass market with the introduction of Aspire's Atlantis tank: the first sub-ohm tank, and it would change the vaping market completely.
Make no mistake, the Aspire Atlantis was a game-changer. It was the first atomizer made to be lung-hit, and it didn't require any knowledge of rebuilding. It worked the same way as bottom-coil clearomizers, except the airflow and coils were much larger to allow for lung-hitting and increased vapor production. The Atlantis finally allowed non-enthusiast vapers to get the cloud production of a rebuildable, but in a tank that they were already familiar with how to use and without having to dedicate time to learning how to rebuild.
The initial problem with the Atlantis was that sub-ohm regulated mods were still in their infancy. Any of these devices that were of good quality were expensive, and cheaper versions had their fair share of problems. Of course, mechanical mods were still an option, having the best quality in relation to price, but many people were already accustomed to regulated mods and didn't like mechanical mods for one reason or another. Some people didn't like the sense of the vape getting weaker as the battery died. Some liked the convenience of being able to turn the device off. Whatever the reason, mechanical mods surged in popularity for a short while, until regulated mod technology was able to catch up.
Eventually, mods began to fire lower resistances at higher wattages. With the Atlantis needing at least 30 watts of power, the standard 15-watt device simply wouldn't work. In addition, the standard Atlantis coils were 0.5Ω, much lower than the Gen. 1-3 minimum for most mods: 1.2Ω. Almost all of the mods we see today are derivative of these early “high-wattage” mods. They generally had 3 buttons and a screen, and would fire sub-ohm coils. This began the “wattage wars,” or the time when every company was trying to create a mod that would fire higher and higher wattages. At the same time, every manufacturer wanted to copy the Atlantis, and even improve upon it. With different coils needing more and more power, mods also needed more and more power. The wattage wars are just now starting to slow down, with sub-ohm tanks using coils that work up to 220W, and mods that use multiple batteries in order to provide up to 300W of power.
What's ironic is that the overall design of the Atlantis coils (and most of the coils that came after) is based on the Gen. 2 cartomizer. Instead of a wick going through the coil, it's wrapped around it. The big differences between the 2 is that sub-ohm coils are much larger to allow for more airflow, and the wicking material is organic cotton instead of polyfill. Organic cotton wick was made popular with rebuildables in Gen. 3. Unlike standard silica wick, cotton can burn when dry, but it provides better flavor, was easier to find for purchase, and was significantly cheaper. Nowadays, silica wick is virtually unheard of.
At this point in Gen. 4, we have high-wattage mods and sub-ohm tanks that are improving every day. Airflow of sub-ohm tanks continues to get larger and larger, as do their replacement coils. Also, the number of coils within the replacement increases, and currently you can find premade coils for sub-ohm tanks housing up to 10 coils. The quality and reliability of mods increases significantly, while price simultaneously drops. Even starter kits are starting to come with sub-ohm tanks. Basically what we are starting to see is a homogenization of products. Mods can fire virtually anything and are reasonably priced. Sub-ohm tanks make large strides over the Atlantis, and even start to offer special coils made for MTL vaping, meaning that a single tank can cater to multiple vaping styles.
Now we're starting to overlap a bit with the current generation: Gen. 5.
Generation 5 very may well be the final generation for vaping products because of both a lack of new technology, and the FDA Deeming Regulations which only exacerbates the technology stagnation. However, one very important development inherent to Gen. 5 is temperature control. While temperature control was technically born in Gen. 4, it was more of a gimmick until Gen. 5, where it became viable.
What exactly is temperature control? In short, a mod can control the temperature of the coil, in addition to being able to regulate the power. All wire used for coils actually increases in resistance when heated, some more than others. For example, nickel's resistance changes drastically with heat, while Kanthal hardly changes resistance at all. Temperature control measures this change in resistance in order to calculate temperature, and the final product is burn prevention. Temperature control is specifically designed to eliminate dry hits and burning.
Nickel was the first wire to be used for temperature control since the resistance changes more than any other wire when heated. There were some health concerns with using nickel, but given the nature of temperature control, nickel couldn't get hot enough when used properly to be harmful. Nevertheless, some vapers weren't comfortable using nickel. In response, titanium and stainless steel wire became popular. Over time, every mod would offer temperature control for nickel, titanium, and stainless steel in addition to the classic variable wattage.
Temperature control is basically a standard feature on variable mods these days. Some people love it and some people hate it, but it's most likely going on be possible on any modern regulated device. Most experienced vapers don't have a problem with dry hits when using variable wattage, and so don't find any value in temperature control. Others like having the extra peace of mind, or just enjoy the unique sensation that vaping with temperature control offers.
Sub-ohm tanks are currently the most popular type of atomizer, and many share certain qualities. The majority of modern sub-ohm tanks are filled from the top and use similar coils that haven't changed much since the Atlantis. In addition, even flavor chasers mostly lung-hit nowadays, albeit with more restricted airflow compared to cloud chasers. Many sub-ohm tanks also offer a coil that can be rebuilt. A handful of tanks offered this in Gen. 4, but the RBA decks were generally finicky, and served more as a backup or something to tinker with. Now, RBA decks are good enough to rival dedicated RTAs.
Dedicated RTAs have also come a long way, with more airflow, reduced leaking, and top-filling. Even Genesis-style tanks have made a comeback, although they more closely resemble RDAs with large juice wells than classic Genesis tanks. RTAs come in all shapes and sizes, with varying airflow designed for either flavor chasing or cloud chasing, and some work well for both.
RDAs have also been perfected, and offer some of the widest variety when it comes to vaping products. The simple premise of a dripper allows designers and manufacturers to get creative, offering all kinds of different airflow options and deck varieties. In general, RDAs are some of the easiest atomizers to rebuild, and there's no shortage of wire types and vaping styles. If you can deal with the inherent relative messiness and the lack of e-liquid capacity, RDAs offer some of the best flavor and vapor production possible.
Rebuildables in general have never been more accessible, in no small part due to the fact that they are competing with sub-ohm tanks. They're inexpensive, well-made, easy to find, and simple to build with minimal investment and learning curve.
Unfortunately, on May 10, 2016 the FDA released the Deeming Regulations. We'll get more into detail about that in a future article, but the most immediate effect is that no new products can enter the US market after August 8, 2016. The good news is that vape technology has reached a plateau. We have mods that can do virtually anything at reasonable prices and in all shapes and sizes suited to any vaper. We have a myriad of atomizers, many of which are able to satisfy multiple vape styles. Starter kits have never been more versatile, with many consisting of a single piece and allowing new vapers to, again, experience multiple vaping styles in order to determine which they prefer before upgrading. The vape industry is well past the point where every product needs to be treated with skepticism as to whether they'll even work or not. 99% of the products on the market work as intended, and the only thing left to determine is which one works best for you.
That catches us up to current day, and that doesn't even touch upon everything. Vaping began as an underground, niche product that had huge potential but didn't work very well. It's been nothing but non-stop improvement and innovation since 2007, and now is finally starting to stall out. In only 10 years, vaping has become a worldwide phenomenon. For as many products that are out there, there are just as many vapers. There truly is something for everybody if you know where to look. From devices that almost perfectly replicate an analog cigarette experience, to devices that are more comparable with fog machines, vaping has become a sprawling landscape of atomizers and mods. While people who started vaping in Gen. 1 or Gen. 2 remember that time with fondness, vapers who've just started recently and curious non-vapers alike might find it interesting to know where vaping started and how far it's come. Take a close look at the newest device or atomizer, and you'll start to see remnants of an era of vaping long past.