A Brief History of Cannabis Vaporizers and Vaporizing Weed
Whether you’ve been vaping weed for years, or you’re relatively new to this method of cannabis consumption, inhaling cannabinoids and terpenes in their gaseous state—rather than breathing the smoke from incinerated cannabis—is a tried and true consumption technique almost as old as the plant itself.
Owing to cannabis’s recent “modern” history as a forbidden flower, widespread consumer use of cannabis vaporizers is a relatively recent development—as is the arrival of high-tech cannabis vaporizers designed for maximum utility and convenience.
Vaping weed has evolved into a lifestyle choice consistent with the understanding of cannabis as a wellness supplement and medicine, rather than simply an intoxicant. And this functional evolution speaks to the relatively recent and vast gains made in cannabis botany, biology and pharmacology. We know more about this plant every day; we also know more about what it does, and how to best go about consuming it for our desired outcomes.
In the same way, the arrival of sleek, portable, discreet, and highly specialized personal devices for vaping weed represents significant advances in technology as well as consumer awareness. For a vivid illustration of just how far cannabis vaporizers and the art of vaporizing cannabis have come, let’s look back at the initial devices that came onto the consumer market.
The first U.S. patent application for an electric cigarette—essentially an electric-powered heating coil you could hold in your hand, and maybe even dangle from your mouth, cowboy-like—was filed almost a century ago. It would be a few more decades until the concept of heating plant material rather than oils or extracts (to create a potent and breathable vapor stream as the delivery vector) caught on, and even then it was decidedly fringe. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the first vaporizers were tube-and-box contraptions available via mail-order ads found in the back pages of High Times—not exactly mainstream, and not exactly something neat and easy.
Electric-powered vaporizers took a back seat until vaping itself gained a foothold in cannabis culture. Ben Dronkers, founder of Amsterdam-based genetics clearinghouse Sensi Seeds, takes credit for introducing the concept of vaping via industrial heat guns applied to glass hash pipes.
From there, Eagle Bill Amato, a refugee from American cannabis laws living in Europe, took the idea and ran with it, or so the story goes. Amato went on to introduce a product to the market, demonstrating how a heat gun might vaporize weed in a commercially available device.
Nothing more than a large glass pipe with a bulbous bowl, Eagle Bill’s Shake & Vape is ridiculously simple—but a heating element was not included in the device. And for most vaporizers of cannabis, a device that heats the flower (without burning it) is sort of the whole point.
Vaping like Eagle Bill doesn’t require much in the way of resources of technology. Acquire the pipe, and all that’s left is finding your heat. You can use a lighter if heat guns freak you out (or if you’d prefer to get stoned somewhere other than your garage) or if a blowtorch just seems silly. But both are unwieldy, inconvenient, and have at least some potential for danger in the form of burns. And as far as portability and discretion go, you’re better off sneaking tokes from a blunt.
Here’s where we’ll sneak in the obligatory mention that dabbers are all vapers. After all, heating a quartz, ceramic or metal nail to a few hundred degrees Celsius, dropping on a glob of concentrated cannabis, and filling your lungs with the cloud of vapor is vaporizing.
None of this is exactly portable, and until recently, the same was true with vaping dry flower.
Advocate organizations like NORML and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) took advantage of the new technology and utilized the Volcano and other vaporizers in scientific studies on the health benefits of vaping weed, as opposed to smoking it.
Data from these studies demonstrated that vaping introduced fewer carcinogens and other potentially harmful substances into the human body. Even the skeptics had to admit that “vaporization of cannabis is a safe and effective mode of delivery of THC,” as a 2007 article published in the journal Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics acknowledged.
Real heads knew, advocates knew, even scientists knew. What was holding everyone else back from vaping? One hurdle was miniaturization—figuring out how to combine the heat source, power source, and the delivery method in the same pocket or purse-sized package.
As Vapor.com notes, a few years after the Shake & Vape hit the market, other companies introduced more attractive and more compact models that still required an external heat source. A few others managed to internalize the heat source, but required bulky battery packs for a power source. Even without the large battery packs, vaporizers were still bulky conversation starters—in that they begged the question, “What is that shampoo-bottle sized thing you keep ‘sneaking’ hits from?”
Around the 2010s, the introduction and proliferation of tinier and tinier lithium ion batteries introduced a portable power source strong enough to heat a coil or run a fan. One of the first vaporizer devices to incorporate portable lithium ion batteries was the Magic Flight Launch Box, which ran off of a AA-sized battery and was economical enough to fit in the palm of the user’s hand. More important than this technological advance, however, was the legal and commercial progress taking place around the same time.
Recreational legalization, beginning with Colorado and Washington in 2012, meant an increase in interest, demand and acceptance of cannabis use. Cannabis vaporizers and vaping weed were finally coming into the mainstream. This meant competition among makers vying to offer consumers the most advanced features in the smallest and most attractive devices possible.
This is the milieu into which the DaVinci Classic Vaporizer fit when it hit the market in 2011. This high-quality pocket-sized vaporizer, which offered a number of convenient and versatile features, was the first of its kind, and it made a big splash with consumers. From there, DaVinci innovated a number of subsequent portable vaporizers, including the game-changing IQ. As Westword reported in 2016, squeezing highly-advanced features and long battery life into a phone-sized package was an engineering feat that took DaVinci CEO Cort Smith two years and multiple prototypes to achieve.
Through extensive design and testing work, the device was refined over time. The DaVinci IQ uses zirconia ceramic, rather than glass, as the material for the “air path” through which the cannabis vapor travels on its way to the user’s lips. The air path also enters a “flavor chamber,” essentially one of several holding areas that cools the vapor so that the user tastes the cannabis rather than any of the vaporizer component parts—a significant accomplishment, when you consider that all the pieces can also be removed for cleaning and reassembled simply, without much room for user error. Even features as “simple” as a removable battery were real milestones.
“There's probably 400 hours of engineering to make that happen,” Cort told Westword, regarding the battery. “We were mining for micro-millimeters."
The IQ and its successor, the IQ2—which is capable of vaporizing both dry herb and concentrates—also represent tremendous advances in user input capabilities. Instead of just choosing what weed to vaporize, or when and where to do it, users now wield unprecedented control over draw volume, temperature and precise dosage. This latest generation of portable vaporizers also work in tandem with a smartphone app to provide a level of control that would not have been possible with earlier components and analog interfaces. The evolution of cannabis vaporizers over time is an excellent example of the dynamic technological and commercial achievements that can be realized when demand, interest and opportunity intersect as they have in the cannabis landscape.