When 18th Century Scientists Got Everybody Wasted on Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, hippie crack and whip-its, was around long before Burning Man parties. In fact, it was the subject of a series of mind-blowing experiments by scientists over 200 years ago, who tested the gas on themselves and many delighted volunteers, for "research."

Image of early 19th century nitrous party antics, via Wellcome Library

Over at the Public Domain Review, Mike Jay has a fantastic essay on the famous chemist Humphry Davy, who began his career by experimenting with laughing gas. His experiences sound a lot like the LSD experiments of the 1930s.

Writes Jay:

On Boxing Day of 1799 the twenty-year-old chemist Humphry Davy – later to become Sir Humphry, inventor of the miners' lamp, President of the Royal Society and domineering genius of British science – stripped to the waist, placed a thermometer under his armpit and stepped into a sealed box specially designed by the engineer James Watt for the inhalation of gases, into which he requested the physician Dr. Robert Kinglake to release twenty quarts of nitrous oxide every five minutes for as long as he could retain consciousness.

The experiment was taking place in the lamp-lit laboratory of the Pneumatic Institution, an ambitious and controversial medical project where the young Davy had been taken on as laboratory assistant. It had opened the previous March in Hotwells, a run-down spa at the foot of the Avon Gorge outside Bristol. Originally developed to rival nearby Bath, Hotwells had dwindled to a downmarket cluster of cheap clinics and miracle-cure outfits offering hydrotherapy or mesmerism to those in the desperate last stages of consumption; but the Pneumatic Institution was a new arrival with revolutionary ambitions. Its founder, the brilliant and maverick doctor Thomas Beddoes, believed that the new gases with which he and his assistant were experimenting had the power to put the treatment of this most lethal of diseases onto a proper scientific footing for the first time, and in the process to transform the art of medicine.

In the centre of the laboratory, Davy had set up a chemical reaction: nitrate of ammoniac bubbled in a heated retort, and the escaping gas was being collected in a hydraulic bellows before seeping through water into a reservoir tank from which the sealed box was filled. After an hour and a quarter, by which time he estimated that his system was fully saturated, Davy stepped out of the box and proceeded to inhale a further twenty quarts of the gas from a series of oiled green silk bags.

While seated in the box breathing deeply, Davy had felt the effects that had become familiar from his many previous experiments since he had first inhaled the gas earlier that year. The first signature was its curiously benign sweet taste, followed by a gentle pressure in the head as he continued to inhale. Within thirty seconds the sensation of soft, probing pressure had extended to his chest, and the tips of his fingers and toes. This was accompanied by a vibrant burst of pleasure, and a gradual change in the world around him. Objects became brighter and clearer, and the space in the cramped box seemed to expand and take on unfamiliar dimensions.

Now, under the influence of the largest dose of nitrous oxide anyone had ever taken, these effects were intensified to levels he could not have imagined. His hearing became fantastically acute, allowing him to distinguish every sound in the room and seemingly from far beyond: a vast and distant hum, perhaps the vibration of the universe itself. In his field of vision, the objects around him were teasing themselves apart into shining packets of light and energy. He was rising effortlessly into new worlds whose existence he had never suspected. Somehow, the whole experience was irresistibly funny: he had 'a great disposition to laugh', as all his senses competed to exercise their new-found freedom to its limit.

The story only gets weirder, as Davy's experiments turn laughing gas into a popular parlor trick at parties and people start huffing from bags of the stuff in public parks. Those crazy enlightenment-era kids!

Read the full story at Public Domain Review