The Laughing Gas Experiments of 1799

Humphry Davy, before he became President of the Royal Society, experimented on himself by inhaling large amounts of nitrous oxide, the laughing gas that dentists use today. Beginning in April 1799, the 20-year-old chemist not only inhaled it, but recruited his friends for nitrous oxide sessions to see if they achieved the euphoria he found. It sounds like a party.

In the early summer of 1799 the nitrous oxide trials began in earnest. In the evenings, after the Pneumatic Institution had closed, the nitrate of ammoniac reaction would begin to bubble in its upstairs drawing room as Davy and Beddoes’ circle – doctors and patients, chemists, playwrights, surgeons and poets – experimented on themselves and each other. Davy was master of ceremonies and also, by his own account, inhaling the gas himself three or four times a day. The laboratory became a philosophical theatre in which the boundaries between experimenter and subject, spectator and performer were blurred to fascinating effect, and the experiment took on a life of its own.

Cosmic. Davy’s interest in nitrous oxide went from the medical to the metaphysical, as he explored the consciousness-expanding properties of the gas. To his dismay, he found that when others tried to describe the experience, the words of the English language were inadequate. As his friends lost interest over the summer, Davy continued to inhale the laughing gas -for research purposes, of course. Read about the experiments, and how his odd writings on nitrous oxide and its effects made him a star in scientific circles, at the Public Domain Review. -via Nag on the Lake


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