Nitrous oxide Price

The summer of 1799 saw a new fad take hold in one remarkable circle of British society: the inhalation of “Laughing Gas”. The overseer and pioneer of these experiments was a young Humphry Davy, future President of the Royal Society. Mike Jay explores how Davy’s extreme and near-fatal regime of self-experimentation with the gas not only marked a new era in the history of science but a turn toward the philosophical and literary romanticism of the century to come.

Detail from a satirical print from 1830 depicting Humphry Davy administering a dose of Laughing Gas to a woman while Count Rumford looks on (cropped out of the picture above), above the caption “Prescription for Scolding Wives” – Source.

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.

Frontispiece to Davy’s Researches, Chemical and Philosophical (1800), depicting the machinery used to create his experimental gases – Source, The Wellcome Library.

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.

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