I’ve never tried laughing gas. Just never felt the need to; I’ve seen some of my friends intoxicated with the substance, and that’s enough entertainment in itself. But, the history of this party drug is a pretty incredible one – you’ll realise a lot of great inventors are elite masters of self-experimentation (yeah, not me) and this guy is no exception. Let’s get to it.
It began in 1772, when Joseph Priestly first discovered nitrous oxide, and he successfully synthesised it in 1775. Then came along young English chemist and inventor (plus, future president of the Royal Society), Humphry Davy. In October 1798, he joined the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol as the laboratory operator, and for you Bristolians out there, you’ll be extremely proud to know it was there where Davy played around with stoichiometry and delivered the laughing gas of your parties today! Oh, and just for your interest, this organisation was formed to exploit usage of recently discovered respiratory gases for medical practice – thus, the date 1798 is a pretty vital marker for the rapid progress in the discovery of respiratory gas for times to come.
***A lot of the quotes and information below comes from Davy’s “Researches, chemical and philosophical chiefly concerning nitrous oxide, or diphlogisticated nitrous air, and its respiration” (1800).
Davy was dead keen on determining the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide (“…I resolved to breathe the gas for such a time and in such quantities, as to produce excitement equal in duration and superior in intensity to that occasioned by high intoxication from opium or alcohol.”) With the aid of his assistant, Dr Kinglake, during his first few experiments, he described “a slight degree of giddiness”, “pleasurable feelings” and “sublime emotions connected with highly vivid ideas”. So, Davy began increasing both the dosage and the frequency of the experiments over the next couple months, and he does allude to a potential medical use of nitrous oxide, “The power of the immediate operation of the gas in removing intense physical pain, I had a very good opportunity of ascertaining.”
Ya boi began inhaling the gas in out-of-work hours by December, and “felt very great pleasure when breathing it alone, in darkness and silence, occupied only by ideal existence”, though remained incredibly diligent in logging his scientific entries. Ugh, nothing sounds more tempting than a long session of optimistic nihilism, ammirite?
Later, he constructed an “air-tight breathing box” where he would sit for hours and hours, inhaling way too much of that addicting gas, and nearly died on several occasions. He began allowing others to partake (what a selfless man) and I highly recommend you read all the entertaining experiences of his acquaintances, friends & family getting high on this hippy crack. All for science, of course. For example, you know talented poet Robert Southney? Dude who wrote “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, and the epic 1796 poem “Joan of Arc”? Oh yes, he tried out this gas and stated it “excites all possible mental and muscular energy and induces almost a delirium of pleasurable sensations without any subsequent dejection”. Ayyy, a delirium of pleasurable sensations leading to talking bears who eat porridge! (Jk I don’t want to assume anything, but who knows…)
I know I’m making it sound like Davy was a sneak who used the excuse of science as a coverup to enjoy the bouts of pleasure – but honestly, he really did bear medical intentions in mind and was an intelligent guy. Davy was close to recognizing that inhaled nitrous oxide could be valuable for anaesthesia; however, the usage of nitrous oxide at upper class parties and fairs only increased its reputation as a novelty and decreased its respectability as a medical tool.
So lets just skip ahead and head across the pond to meet our next figure, Horace Wells, who saw the gas as a way of reliving the pain of dentistry in 1844. In fact, he had such great success he got a chance to perform it for a crowd at Harvard Medical School…and no, they weren’t a friendly bunch. Wells extracted the tooth of a complying patient, and there definitely was a lot less pain than usual, but the patient mentioned still feeling some pain – this was enough for the judgemental physicians to boo Wells off the stage, and Wells committed suicide a few years later. Wow, doctors, way to go – what’s the purpose of your occupation, again?
Two more decades until nitrous oxide was used again publicly. Two! Okay, we’re almost there. Well, its reintroduction around 1870 was somewhat permanent, and remained the golden dental anaesthesia until the 1960s. It kept its position in anaesthetics, though not at the forefront; although plenty of physicians use it in their practice to this day, it isn’t really something anyone would admit to because even medical grade nitrous oxide can leave people anaemic and are potentially lethal even in the right amounts. Eek.
Nitrous gas has its iffy reputation, but the fact euphoria is mentioned on labels today endures its original recreational usage from over 200 years ago. So, next time, when you’re buying a canister of this stuff at some awesome party, give thanks to your 20-year-old pal Davy doing exactly the same thing 219 years ago.