In his Histories, the ancient Greek scholar Herodotus investigates the political situation that led to the destructive and disruptive Greco-Persian war (a conflict modern-day bros of the 21st century might remember from their long hours watching 300 on DVD). Along the way, he also provides an account of the earliest recorded instance of stoner culture, which has special resonance today. What Herodotus documents is an ancient dry herb vape.
Nomadic warriors on horseback, the Scythian people inhabited a vast land stretching from the Black Sea to modern-day China, an expanse that includes the region of Central Asia where the cannabis plant is believed to have originated. And according to the Histories, the Scythians knew exactly what cannabis was — and what it was for.
When a Scythian died, their friends and relatives would build a bonfire. Along the edges of the flames, they arranged stones. As the stones heated, the Scythians gathered heaps of cannabis seeds. “The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and … throw it upon the red hot stones,” Herodotus recounted.
The hemp seeds would heat, crackle and pop, but they would not catch fire. Instead, the heat caused compounds within the hemp seeds to achieve a gaseous state — that is, they emitted a vapor the Scythians inhaled. When they did, they would grow “delighted” and “shout[ed] for joy,” Herodotus observed.
What the Scythians did was expose cannabis to a source of direct heat but not direct flame. The heat source warmed the cannabis to a temperature below the combustion point of plant material (about 185 degrees Celsius). Cannabinoids and terpenes were transformed into an inhalable gas, while creating no smoke. What the Scythians did, then, is exactly what modern-day conduction vaporizers do.
In this way, the Scythians were both consistent with other ancient cultures — who respected cannabis as a healing plant and a component of sacred rituals — as well as an outlier, because most everyone else around that time is believed to have eaten or smoked their stuff. This makes sense: Eating and smoking are easier, whereas vaporizing requires a more careful technique.
Still, the principle was known. Dry herb vaporizer technology of today owes a debt to the Scythians — and also to a Cherokee medicine man.
Frank William Wood was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in April 1942. Wood was a member of the Cherokee Nation. He was also a major cannabis enthusiast, a small-time cannabis grower and dealer, and a legalization freedom fighter. The latter was sparked by his run-ins with the law and a stint in prison.
After a visit to a Rainbow Gathering, Wood had a conversion. For the rest of his life, “Eagle Bill Amato” (as he was better known) advocated for both cannabis use and a safer method of inhalation, as well as native rights. Though it’s his cannabis advocacy, and specifically his advocacy for vaping, that he is best remembered for today.
Somewhere along the way — we don’t exactly know who — someone showed Eagle Bill how to wave a heat gun over a bowl of weed. The rush of hot air heated the cannabinoids and the terpenes to the same temperature the Scythians discovered. But since the heat source was warmed air, and not a direct source of heat touching the cannabis, Bill saw the principle behind dry herb vaporizers.
He took the idea and ran with it. And he also devised a series of techniques, using a giant glass bell and smaller-sized glass pipes, to capture the vapor and deliver “safe and effective” healing for mind and body. For more than a decade, visitors to the Hemp Museum in Amsterdam could meet Eagle Bill in person, for a first-hand demonstration. And, at select head shops and via mail-order, you could purchase a bulbous glass pipe, the device Eagle Bill marketed as the Shake n Bake.
The benefits were obvious, but so were the problems. A heat gun like the one Bill invented is neither portable nor aesthetically pleasing. This form of dry herb vaporizer entailed a complicated setup and took more time to accomplish than most were willing to invest.
Quick side note: Before Eagle Bill was even born, there was Joseph Robinson. In 1927, Robinson submitted a patent application for a device that would deliver “medical compounds which are electrically or otherwise heated to produce vapor for inhalation… which may be freely handled without any possibility of being burned.”
Sound familiar? It should. A direct-heat vaporizer powered by electric heat is the core principle at work in every modern dry herb vaporizer — even if they use lithium-ion batteries and other innovations unavailable in the 1920s.
Though the US Patent Office granted Robinson’s invention a patent, there is no sign that so much as a prototype was ever built. Still, Robinson’s device, though bulky, is strikingly similar to electric-coil style vapes found on the market today. It’s hard to imagine that the creators behind The Tilt, which NORML believes to be among the first, if not the very first desktop vaporizers sold to the public, weren’t aware of Robinson and his patent.
This brings us to Richard Nixon!
Like many aspects of cannabis culture, vaporizers were also born of necessity — necessity stemming directly from cannabis prohibition, the legacy of the Controlled Substances Act that Nixon signed into law as president in 1970.
Think, if you can, back to the early 2000s. State-sanctioned medical cannabis is only a few years old in the United States. Commercial dispensaries — and the cannabis “industry” — is almost a decade away, and legalization is still a very distant reality. Though everybody suspects tobacco and alcohol are far more dangerous than cannabis, and even though a long-term study of marijuana smokers found them to be far healthier than cigarette users, the drug-war mindset remains potent within the psyche of mainstream America. Research that could prove marijuana’s safety was a non-negotiable prerequisite for decriminalization and legalization.
As physician and writer Lester Grinspoon, author of Marihuana Reconsidered, observed in 1997, inhaling smoke is “the only well-confirmed deleterious effect” of cannabis use. It was clear that a smoking alternative had to be found, and had to be found quickly. Bongs and water pipes wouldn’t cut it.
For these reasons, in 2000, NORML and MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, sponsored a vaporizer study. Devices using an electric radiator (conduction; Scythians and Robinson) and a hot-air gun (convection, Eagle Bill) were tested, and both managed to convert more cannabis into inhalable THC vapor without triggering combustion, and thus adding toxic smoke to the mix. Vaping was the safest and most effective method of consuming cannabis. And now cannabis advocates had research to back that up.
It’s not an accident that around this time design companies started mass-producing desktop vaporizers using hot air to fill balloons — despite the risk of interdiction by federal drug police. It’s also not an accident that more and more states passed medical-cannabis laws around this time, followed a decade (or less!) later by legalization. Much credit for that is due to the dry herb vaporizer, a lineage that stretches back more than 2000 years.