On the Origins of the Electronic Cigarette: British American Tobacco's Project Ariel (1962-1967)

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Electronic cigarettes are advertised as the latest technological gadget-the smoking equivalent of smart phones. I challenge this sense of novelty by tracing their history to the 1960s, when researchers at British American Tobacco first recognized that smokers' brains were dependent on nicotine. This discovery enabled British American Tobacco to develop a novel kind of smoking device under the codename “Ariel” between 1962 and 1967. Whereas filters were meant to eliminate specific harmful constituents of tobacco smoke, Project Ariel tried to reduce smoking to its alkaloid essence: nicotine. By heating instead of burning tobacco, the scientists working on Ariel managed to produce an aerosol smoking device that delivered nicotine with very little tar while retaining the look and feel of a cigarette. However, after receiving two patents for Ariel, British American Tobacco ultimately decided to abandon the project to avoid endangering cigarettes, its main product. Today, as e-cigarettes are surging in popularity, it is worth revisiting Ariel because it is not just an episode in the history of aerosol smoking devices but its starting point.

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