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.
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.
Listerine did not invent bad breath. Human mouths have stunk for millennia, and there are ancient breath fresheners out there you can read up about. But here’s a nice little story of how Listerine advertisements transformed bad breath from an ordinary albeit awkward personal circumstance into an embarrassing medical condition with heavy implications of social suicide. Treatment that very conveniently was sold by the company themselves.
The History Of Listerine
What: Listerine was invented originally as a surgical disinfectant.
Who:Doctor Joseph Lawrence, inspired by the research of Sir Joseph Lister. Oh, who was Joseph Lister? Well, back in the nineteenth century, “hospital disease” (now known as post-operative sepsis infection) was prevalent; that is, mortality rates post-operation were high despite successful surgical procedures. For example, Lister reported in the Male Accident Ward in the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, between 45-50% of amputation cases died from sepsis between 1861 and 1865. It was in this ward he did his experiments – in line with his earlier research on the coagulation of blood and role of blood vessels in the first stage of inflammation, he had already formulated theories and disregarded the concept of miasma (popular, but not obsolete medical concept, stating diseases were caused by “bad air”). By that time, bacteriologist Louis Pasteur had arrived at his theory microorganisms caused fermentation and disease; thus, Lister’s education and speculations that sepsis could be caused by pollen-like dust compelled him to accept Pasteur’s theory. An amalgamation of his previous research and Pasteur’s theory, he began conducting experiments; he soaked dressings with carbolic acid to cover wounds (an effective antiseptic already used as a means of cleansing foul-smelling sewers). The results were dramatic: surgical mortality rates decreased from 45 to 15% between 1865 and 1869 in the Male Accident Ward. And in 1865, Lister was the first surgeon to carry out an operation in a chamber sterilised by pulverising antiseptic into a fine mist of carbolic acid into the air around the operation.
Why: So, here comes in an inspired Joseph Lawrence, who made a unique formulation of surgical antiseptic himself in 1879…and in honour of Sir Joseph Lister, called it LISTERINE®. He formed a partnership with pharmacist Jordan Wheat Lambert, creating Lambert Pharmaceutical Company, producing & selling this disinfectant in operating theatres and bathing wounds.
How: …but it was pretty small market. So, to increase sales, its advertised use became extremely varied: a cure for dandruff, a floor cleaner, a hair tonic, a deodorant, and even a cure for diseases ranging from dysentery to gonorrhoea. Okay, so this did put up company revenues. But the Lamberts had another idea in the 1920s.
They began putting the vaguely medical-sounding term “halitosis” in their advertisements, framing it as a health condition hindering people from being their best. During that era of time, a lot of companies were offering products that could cure every known illness, including catering to the emerging middle class’s social anxieties. I mean, look at this ad below – the sad, unmarried Edna doomed to be a bridesmaid but never a bride just because she has this condition “halitosis”.
This marketing campaign was incredibly successful, and over 7 years, revenues skyrocketed to $8 million. And now, we all know Listerine primarily as the antiseptic for oral health & hygiene. This must be one of the best iterations in history of the modern advertising industry creating a problem to sell its solution. Well played, Lamberts.
I just came back from the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies titled “Globalized Thailand? Connectivity, Conflict, and Conundrums of Thai Studies” in Chiang Mai – my amazing sister presented her LSE dissertation, “Thai Youth Sexual Culture: Exploring Representations of Gender and Sexuality in the Thai Controversial Series, Hormones (2013).”If you’d like to read the masterpiece, here’s the link (scroll down to Tammarin Dejsupa and press that PDF logo); there were way too many intelligent words coming out of her mouth, and needless to say, I was immensely proud, but also very confused…
The panel was on sexuality, media & commercialisation – and so, to kind of continue on a similar theme, I decided to dedicate this time capsule log to that by writing about…vibrators.
There’s a tale that goes Egyptian Queen Cleopatra invented the vibrator; she supposedly had the idea to fill a hollow gourd with angry bees, and the violent buzzing caused the gourd to vibrate…and the rest is history. Or is it?
If you do a quick Google search on the history of vibrators, many will state it was invented by Victorian doctors as a prescribed “pelvic massage” treatment for patients with hysteria to induce “hysterical paroxysm” (read: orgasm) because the medical professionals back then complained about the manual labour being tiresome. It’s a great conversational story, huh? Imagine breaking the ice with “Hey! Did you know, the vibrator was invented to treat women with hysteria because Victorian doctors got tired of manually stimulating them?” And then there’d be shared boisterous laughter, suggestive nudges and comments like “Ugh, tell me about it!”
The story makes the Victorians sound reserved, that they were oblivious to the art of self-pleasure and never saw pelvic massage as anything other than medicinal. And until the 20th century, it was even more so believed women did not experience sexual desire; to be a lady was to lack sex drive, with a duty to put up with their husband’s sexual needs. It would feed directly into the stereotypical connotations I’m sure most of you have about the Victorians – the whole high prudery attitude resulting in shrouding piano legs and a “Lie back and think of England” kind of mentality.
It’s true that some doctors during that time believed the art of self-pleasure was highly dangerous to your health (check out these painful looking anti-masturbation devices – moment of silence for all the teens during 1840 to 1900). However, Michel Foucault famously critiqued these stereotypes, and in his book “The History of Sexuality” explains the repressive hypothesis: “…that Western man has been drawn for three centuries to the task of telling everything concerning his sex; that since the classical age there has been a constant optimization and an increasing valorization of the discourse on sex; and that this carefully analytical discourse was meant to yield multiple effects of displacement, intensification, reorientation, and modification of desire itself.”1Basically, as readers, we’ve read into the history of the past three centuries assuming sexual repression. Whether or not you accept this hypothesis, Foucault sparked much academic work exploring the various ways Victorians did indeed openly speak of desire; there are a lot of examples. Victorian attitude towards both male and female sexuality can be seen just as expressive and expansive as it is today – a prime example being the glamorous courtesan of Paris, Cora Pearl, who lived a very erotic life. In fact, Victorian women had a healthy interest in protecting their bodies whilst still enjoying a sexual relationship; Annie Besant’s “Fruits of Philosophy”2 published in 1877, was a guide that listed every single possible contraceptive method available to the Victorian reader, becoming so popular it even reached out to 125,000 Brits in the first few months alone.
So, back to that whole women-with-hysteria-treated-with-massage-and-vibrator-was-invented story. In actuality, it was only a hypothesis by Dr. Rachel Maines, famed sex historian and author of seminal 1999 book, “The Technology of Orgasm”. She even said so herself, “Well, people just thought this was such a cool idea that people believe it, that it’s like a fact. And I’m like, ‘It’s a hypothesis! It’s a hypothesis!’. But it doesn’t matter, you know? People like it so much they don’t want to hear any doubts about it.”3Truth! Even when I began researching about the topic, I thought it was a hoot and a half to tell. But now we know – yes, the vibrator was officially invented in Victorian times, but that is definitely not the full story. Number one, doctors were fully aware what they were doing; keep in mind, people thought real sex was only penetration to male orgasm, and sex education was incredibly limited. I just wanted to make clear Victorians weren’t this prude, unaware society. Number two, the vibrator’s history is much more complicated. Hopefully we can get past the party story version.
So, what’s the actual history of the vibrator, then? Well, we definitely know its origin was very much within the medical setting; the earliest vibrators, as stated by Dr. Maines, “…came out of massage, hand technology for massage.” Not with the intention of inducing orgasm. But other than that, there is vast amount of speculation out there, which in turn further deep-dives into a plethora of ancient obstetrics & gynaecology papers. I particularly enjoyed Helen King’s critical analysis of the history behind therapeutic masturbation associated with “hysteria” – it’s 32 pages long, but 32 pages of such splendidly interesting information citing many dated texts (honestly, worth checking out). However, I attempted to comb through the tangles of speculated knowledge so you don’t have to (but there is still so much out there I haven’t mentioned). Here we go.
The History of Vibrators
We begin with Hippocrates, widely regarded as the Father of Western Medicine (we swore the derivative of his medical oath during the promise ceremony first week of uni). Despite his brilliance, there was a lot about the female body Hippocrates did not grasp – he believed the womb was an actively moving organ that even travelled to the trachea during orgasm, contributing to heavy breathing. The label “hysteria” is never used in early texts, but that weird womb-moving theory Hippocrates thought of is mentioned as a condition called “suffocation of/from the womb”. The womb, he believed, was to blame for “nervousness, fluid retention, insomnia, and lack of appetite”4Later, Greek doctor Galen, most admired for being a brilliant anatomist ahead of his time and a master of medical philosophy5, proclaimed the symptoms were caused by retention of semen and saw widows as a particularly high-risk group. The cure: herbal remedies, pelvic massage, and even getting married6(can you imagine getting this as your prescription). Mind you, the concept hysteria hasn’t been mentioned yet.
It persisted through the Middle Ages; treatments still included marriage and pelvic massage, but also “irritating suppositories and fragrant salves”7. This treatment continued throughout the Renaissance period, and Nathanial Highmore was one of the first doctors to publicly acknowledge the end result of pelvic massage – the hysterical paroxysm8. Orgasms became kind of a socially acceptable treatment for this strange condition that hadn’t been named yet. Whatever the condition was, doctors agreed it included a wide variety of symptoms including nervousness, anxiousness, emotional outbursts, hallucinations, “tendency to cause trouble”, fluid retention, and yes, sexual thoughts/frustration.
In the 1700s, speculated causes of this condition shifted from the womb to the brain, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century when the condition was finally labelled hysteria (the Greek word for womb) and was something in need of treatment. The treatment was hysterical paroxysm, horse-riding, and even unpleasant blasting of water on the abdomen.9 Doctors apparently dreaded giving hysterical paroxysms because it was time-consuming, taxed physical endurance, and hand fatigue giving the massages meant they couldn’t always produce the desired result. They pushed for an invention to aid them – thus, here enters the very first vibrator: the Tremoussior,a strange wind-up clockwork contraption invented in France, 1734 (mind you, this was before electricity was invented). Then, in 1869, came along the steam-powered vibrator, “The Manipulator”, invented by American physician George Taylor – however, it was this cumbersome, immovable thing that you constantly had to shove coal in.
Finally, an enterprising English physician, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, patented an electromechanical vibrator during the 1880s,which became greatly popularised and was soon a permanent installation in the doctor’s surgery at that time. It became incredibly popular and soon, battery-powered vibrators were introduced as a household appliance; it was a huge commercial success, becoming the fifth electrical appliance to be introduced into households alongside the kettle, sewing machine, fan, and toaster10.
Advertisement for Vibrators (Source: American Vibrator Co., 1906)
But then the vibrator had its debut in pornography and became unacceptable as a household tool to treat hysteria, labelled prurient rather than respectable. Women could no longer disguise their intentions of buying one, and doctors dropped the devices because of their sexual connotations. Vibrator ads disappeared from consumer media, and lips were sealed shut – that is, until the women’s movement in 1970s. Feminists like Betty Dodson11made it a symbol of female sexuality, and vibrators became just as popular as before.
As for hysteria – being such an amorphous condition, the diagnosis surprisingly only recently fell from medical grace in American Psychiatric Association’s mental disorders in 1952.12
So there you have it. From womb-moving theories to feminism, that is how a medical cure became a female sexual icon.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed the Six-Word Stories I’ve been putting out! I’m now beginning a new segment called “Time Capsule Log”, which I’m extremely excited about. I’ll be exploring inventions & breakthroughs with weird origin stories, whether it be failed pharmaceutical drugs eventually fated for non-clinical use or accidental products that have ended up medically successful. Curiosity is one of the great virtues of mankind, and it just goes to show purpose doesn’t have to be born out of intention. Alrighty, enough introduction – onto the fun!
The History of Coca-Cola
What? Coca-Cola was initially formulated as a cure for morphine addiction. What!?
Who? John Pemberton was a pharmacist and “the most noted physician Atlanta ever had” according to Atlanta newspapers1, but he was also a Confederate veteran of the Civil War.
Why? He was almost killed fighting in the Battle of Columbus in April 1865, and with his background as a pharmacist, his access to morphine and need to appease the pain from his war injuries lead to a strong morphine addiction2.
How? In 1884, Pemberton began experimenting to create opium-free medication as an attempt to cure his addiction, and along the way, another doctor claimed coca (cocaine) had the ability to do so. Thus, Pemberton devised “French Wine Coca”, a concoction containing coca leaves, caffeine-containing kola nuts, and wine. The product was advertised dramatically as seen on the label below (well I’ll be; it cures heart disease!). However, the city of Atlanta enacted legislation bringing about local prohibition in 1886, and Pemberton was forced to remove the alcoholic element from his formula, despite selling it as a medicine. Thus, he had to revise his to-be popular beverage by using sugar syrup to replace the wine’s sweetness and carbonating the mixture, eventually marketing it as the Coca-Cola we all know and love today. This new drink was advertised as “delicious, exhilarating, refreshing and invigorating” whilst retaining “the valuable tonic and nerve stimulant properties of the coca plant and cola nuts.” The cocaine ingredient persisted, however, only until the beginning of the 1900s because a series of stories spread throughout the South that black men were getting high on cocaine before raping white women (yikes!)3.
In such devastating irony, despite claims made about Coca-Cola’s restorative powers, Pemberton remained addicted to morphine; he never realised the long-potential of the beverage he created, slowly selling off the company in pieces to various partners before dying of stomach cancer in 1888.4 It is said that on the day of Pemberton’s funeral, the owners of all the drug stores in Atlanta attended the services as a tribute of respect, and “not one drop of Coca-Cola was dispensed in the entire city.”5
Early advert for Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. The Anderson Intelligencer, March 11, 1886. Source:Â Courtesy of Library of Congress Archives
Early advert for Coca-Cola. Source: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Coca-Cola
I’ve always admired how Coca-Cola holds these joyful campaigns that celebrate authentic, genuine moments in life. Perhaps Pemberton couldn’t cure his own morphine addiction, but he created something pretty beautiful out of it. Lest we forget, let’s clink together a couple of Cokes and say cheers.