Click here to support the Daily Grail for as little as $US1 per month on Patreon
Courtesy Wellcome Collection (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license)

‘Oh Excellent Air Bag!’: Science, poetry, consciousness expansion and the discovery of laughing gas

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. After an hour and a quarter, by which time he estimated that his system was saturated, Davy stepped unsteadily out of the box and proceeded to inhale a further twenty quarts of the gas from a series of silk bags. His description of what followed would become a public sensation, and a symbol of the heroic commitment to science that would define the coming century.

Excerpted from Mike Jay’s Stranger Than Fictionavailable in Kindle and paperback editions from Amazon.

Davy’s experiment was the climax of a freewheeling programme of consciousness expansion into which he had already co-opted some of the most remarkable figures of his day, and it would inspire a century and more of first-person descriptions that combined the scientific, the poetic and the philosophical in previously unimagined ways. This volume presents a selection of the most striking and celebrated examples, some reproduced here for the first time. With the rediscovery of nitrous oxide by the drug culture of the twenty-first century, these can be appreciated not only as a remarkable body of scientific reportage but – long before the term was coined – one of the great flowerings of psychedelic literature. 

The story begins in the laboratory of the Pneumatic Institution in Hotwells, a run-down spa at the foot of the Avon Gorge outside Bristol where the young Humphry Davy had been taken on as laboratory assistant. Originally developed as a centre for medical therapies to rival nearby Bath, by 1799 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. 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.

Davy inhaled his first lungful of nitrous oxide in April 1799, as he and Thomas Beddoes were working their way systematically through the synthesis of gases that might have therapeutic potential. He had set up a chemical reaction: nitrate of ammoniac bubbled in a heated retort, and the escaping gas was collected in a hydraulic bellows before seeping through water into a reservoir tank. Decanting it into an oiled green silk air-bag that the engineer James Watt had designed for dispensing gases to patients, Davy inhaled and was astonished to notice “a highly pleasurable thrilling in the chest and extremities”. Filling his lungs repeatedly, he felt “an irresistible propensity to action” which he indulged by “shouting, leaping and running” around the laboratory in ecstasy.

Method of administering nitrous oxide used by Samuel lee Rymer in London, 1863. (Credit: Wellcome Library, Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0)

Within days Davy began offering the gas to his friends and soliciting their descriptions of its effects. The first guinea-pig was the young poet Robert Southey, whose reaction was as effusive as Davy’s own: “the atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens must be composed of this gas!”. Southey’s ecstatic report to his brother Tom  set the tone for the explorations that were to follow.

In the early summer of 1799 the trials of nitrous oxide began in earnest. During the evenings, when surgery hours at the Pneumatic Institution were over, the nitrate of ammoniac reaction would be set bubbling in the upstairs drawing room and the green silk bag would fill for Davy and Beddoes’ circle of local doctors and their patients, chemists, playwrights, surgeons, lecturers and poets. Davy was master of ceremonies and led from the front: 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.

Although the trials commenced within a medical framework, they came to focus increasingly on questions of metaphysics and, in particular, language. Davy was struck by the poverty of the “language of feeling” available to his subjects, and the awkwardness of their attempts to put their experiences into words. The standard medical question “how do you feel?” took on imponderable, existential dimensions. The subjects were not mentally impaired by the gas, but the sensations and insights it produced were somehow beyond the reach of words. As Davy himself put it, “I have sometimes experienced from nitrous oxide, sensations similar to no others, and they have consequently been indescribable”. James Thompson, one of the volunteers, captured the magnitude of the task precisely: “We must either invent new terms to express these new and peculiar sensations, or attach new ideas to old ones, before we can communicate intelligibly with each other on the operation of this extraordinary gas.” 

Davy instituted a loose reporting protocol, asking every volunteer to produce a short written description of their experience. He also took enthusiastically to experimenting on his own. On full moon nights in particular, he would wander down the Avon Gorge with a bulging green silk bag and notebook, inhaling the gas under the stars and scribbling snatches of poetry and philosophical insights. One one occasion he made himself conspicuous by passing out and, on recovery, was obliged to “make a bystander acquainted with the pleasure I experienced by laughing and stomping”. He noted an element of compulsion in his use, confessing that “the desire to breathe the gas is awakened in me by the sight of a person breathing, or even by that of an air-bag or air-holder”. He began to push his experiments into more dangerous territory. He tried the gas in combination with different stimulants, drinking a bottle of wine methodically in eight minutes flat and then inhaling so much gas he passed out for two hours. He experimented with nitric oxide, which turned to nitric acid in his mouth, burning his tongue and palate, and with ‘hydrocarbonate’ – hydrogen and carbon dioxide – which left him comatose, the air-bag fortunately falling from his lips. On recovering, he “faintly articulated: ‘I do not think I shall die’.” 

By the end of the summer, the energy of the trials was dissipating: for most of the volunteers the novelty wore off after a few sessions. Davy’s experiments became increasingly solitary, partially focused on resolving technical questions such as how much gas was absorbed into the bloodstream and whether it should be classified as a stimulant or a sedative, but also searching for a framework – scientific, poetic or philosophical – to account for its effects. In this he was assisted by the arrival of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who returned to Bristol in October from an extended visit to Germany.

Coleridge and Davy’s friendship would evolve and endure through the many phases of their future careers; but it began with a green silk bag. Coleridge was captivated by the young chemist: “Every subject in Davy’s mind”, he wrote, “has the principle of vitality. Living thoughts spring up like turf under his feet”. Davy was equally swept up in his new friend’s expansive vision, which he felt had the power to transform science as much as poetry. Coleridge had returned from Germany in thrall to the new idealistic turn in its philosophy: the theories of Immanuel Kant and the emerging Naturphilosophie, according to which the human mind was the ultimate source of our reality, and the material world merely an illusion projected by it. The dissociative effects of nitrous oxide, during which consciousness seemed to exist in a dimension beyond the physical body, made compelling sense of this insight. The conclusion of Davy’s Boxing Day experiment – “nothing exists but thoughts” – would echo repeatedly through the experiments that followed.

After his climactic Boxing Day experiment Davy began writing at top speed and by Easter of 1800 had produced a 580-page monograph on the new gas and its effects. Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide, or dephlogisticated nitrous air, and its Respiration described the synthesis of the gas, its effect on animals and animal tissue and, in an unprecedented final section, the descriptions of the effects of nitrous oxide intoxication on himself and two dozen further subjects, including Beddoes, Coleridge and Southey. The report combined two mutually unintelligible languages – organic chemistry and subjective description – to create a groundbreaking hybrid, a poetic science that could encompass both the chemical causes of the experience and its philosophical consequences. 

Even before the Researches were published, however, the backlash began. In May 1800 the Anti-Jacobin Review, a conservative journal that had long had Beddoes in its sights as a French revolutionary sympathiser, lampooned his early reports of the Pneumatic Institution’s discovery in verse. Beddoes’ announcement of a revolution in the human condition set the scene for a mock-symposium in which the likes of Robert Southey declaimed their gaseous revelations in pompous doggerel before dissolving into inane laughter and incoherence. Another verse satire, Terrible Tractoration!!, written three years later as part of a wider assault on the medical world, offers another example of the irresistible temptation to parody that the nitrous oxide experience presented: a lungful of gas and a moment of soaring cosmic revelation, followed by the flatulent deflation of the air-bag together with the philosopher’s absurd pretensions.

Despite such public mockery, Davy’s experiments were promptly reproduced by the network of chemists who had been following his progress through the bulletins he sent to Nicholson’s Journal, their unofficial clearing-house. A group of London amateur chemists called the Askeian Society replicated his experiments in March 1800; one of its members recorded that, on inhaling the gas, he “had the idea of being carried violently upwards in a dark cavern with only a few glimmering lights”. The first published report from America appeared in 1808: William Barton, a medical student at Philadelphia University, took up Davy’s challenge of describing “original sensations” where “no analogous feelings have previously existed”, and found himself reaching for the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton and Rousseau. By 1814 the experience had made the leap from the laboratory to the theatre: the Philadelphia Gazette was carrying small ads for public lectures by a Dr. Jones on nitrous oxide and its effects. 

The scene was described by the printer and pamphleteer Moses Thomas in an eccentric tract subtitled A Physico-Politico-Theological Lucubration on the Wonderful Properties of Nitrous Oxide, which segues from vivid reportage to a disquisition on the patriotic necessity of invading Canada. Dr. Jones was careful to set the stage with sober scientific intent but it’s clear that he was also manipulating his audience to create a diverting public performance. The caged audience created the expectation that the ‘antic’ effects of the gas might break the boundaries of decorum, and the drama of selecting individual audience members encouraged a lively and extroverted response: anyone who, like Coleridge, “remained motionless, in great ecstacy” would risk being booed off stage. Not unlike today’s stage hypnotism shows, the entertainment was provided by an audience who already had a firm idea of what such entertainment should look like.

Nitrous oxide rapidly became a staple of lecture halls, variety theatres, fairgrounds and carnivals. The chemical apparatus required a substantial initial outlay, making it prohibitively expensive to indulge in private but lucrative for entrepreneurs offering it as a novelty to the paying public. The new class of ‘professional’ experimenters, naturally, never tired of stressing the dangers of synthesising or inhaling the gas without expert supervision. By 1824 a nitrous oxide show was part of the variety bill at London’s Adelphi theatre, as part of a programme of “Uncommon Illusions, Wonderful Metamorphoses, Experimental Chemistry, Animated Paintings etc.”. Humphry Davy’s name was prominent on the poster as, at other venues, was the ecstatic testimony of Robert Southey: names to conjure with, the former now President of the Royal Society and the latter Poet Laureate. Also prominent on the Adelphi poster was a new epithet for nitrous oxide: “The Laughing Gas”. 

The German chemist Christian Schoenbein, who would later invent the fuel cell and discover ozone, was one of many who witnessed the Adelphi performances. He recorded that the scientific preamble was interrupted by a heckler (a plant?) from the audience who shouted that the wonders of the gas were “all nonsense and humbug”; of course, he was the first to be invited up on stage, where after receiving his dose he “beat around him like a madman and assaulted the ‘Experimentator’.” Schoenbein was wonderfully entertained, and convinced that the gas was destined to become still more popular: “Maybe it will become the custom for us to inhale laughing gas at the end of a dinner party, instead of drinking champagne”.

(Credit: Wellcome Library, Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0)

Such shows were ideally suited to the travelling carnival circuit in America, where the novelty could be repeated in a different town night after night for years. One of the first itinerants to make a success of them was an eighteen-year-old Samuel Colt, later to design the first mass-produced revolver, who toured a nitrous show around the East Coast from Canada to Maryland in a tent emblazoned with Robert Southey’s endorsement that it must be “the atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens”. 

It was through the American ‘laughing gas shows’ that nitrous oxide finally found its defining medical application. During the 1840s a travelling temperance campaigner named Gardiner Quincy Colton was plying carnivals and show-grounds with an exhibit he called Court of Death: a huge diorama painting depicting the evils of drink and the pits of hell, the backdrop for a fire-and-brimstone lecture. At 25 cents a time, the same as a magic lantern show or fairground ride, he found himself struggling for business until he had the idea of adding nitrous oxide to the mix. He adopted the now-familiar trappings: twelve strong men to protect the performers from unpredictable reactions, ‘safe’ dress seats for the ladies, and a gentlemen-only rule for the volunteers. Colton proved an expert master of ceremonies, adept at interpreting the effects of the gas to reinforce the moral of his show. Nitrous oxide, he explained, had the uncanny effect of materialising original sin. Safely, temporarily and reversibly, it would expose the inner natures of the audience, revealing how bestial they might become if they failed to make temperance their guiding light. 

In 1844 Colton took his gas-fuelled Court of Death show to Hartford, Connecticut, where a young dentist called Horace Wells happened to be in the audience. One of the volunteer performers was gripped by the familiar ‘antic’ mania under the influence and rushed into one of the front benches, smashing his shin against it. He carried on entirely unaware of his injury until the gas wore off, at which point he registered severe pain. Wells examined him and, finding the injury to be quite serious, was struck by the idea that nitrous oxide might make an effective dental anaesthetic. He himself had a wisdom tooth in need of extraction and had been reluctant to entrust it to any of his colleagues; he asked Colton if he would be prepared to administer the gas to him during the operation. Colton agreed, and Wells’ tooth was extracted painlessly. The experience was a revelation for Wells, both professional and personal. He emerged, not unlike Davy, proclaiming his vision in prophetic manner: “A new era in tooth-pulling!” 

Colton abandoned Court of Death and reinvented himself as the Colton Dental Association, offering nitrous anaesthesia to dental patients. The ‘painless method’ was spread by word of mouth for nearly twenty years before professional dentists were prepared to accept it. It was widely adopted only after Colton set up in New York in 1863, by which time he had already franchised his association across several American cities and used the gas in at least 75,000 surgical extractions.

Nitrous oxide was finally hailed as a miracle of modern medicine, just as Beddoes and Davy had predicted, but its strange and ineffable dimensions were not easily dismissed. One of the thousands who passed through the Colton Dental Association in the 1860s was Benjamin Paul Blood, a farmer, bodybuilder, calculating prodigy and tireless pamphleteer who first experienced the effects of the gas during dental surgery in upstate New York. As many had before him, he felt a powerful conviction that the secret of life had been briefly and tantalisingly laid bare under the influence; unlike most, he proceeded to synthesise the gas himself and repeat the experience. In 1874, after ten years of self-experimentation, he produced a pamphlet on the subject entitled The Anesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy.

Self-published and sent unannounced to everyone Blood could think of, The Anesthetic Revelation led to the formation of a loose correspondence circle. It found readers among the ranks of the recently-formed Society for Psychical Research in Britain: the spiritualist Edmund Gurney, the Nobel-winning physicist William Ramsay, the leading British psychiatrist Sir James Crichton-Browne and the art historian John Addington Symonds were among the self-experimenters who contributed their observations on nitrous oxide to the SPR journals. But Blood’s most influential convert was William James, professor of psychology at Harvard and founder of the American Society for Psychical Research, who encountered his pamphlet in the only form in which it was publicly reproduced, an anonymous digest in The Atlantic Monthly

James recognised immediately that the experience it described might prove relevant to what he had come to regard as a dilemma in modern thought. As a physician and psychologist he was convinced that scientific materialism provided the answers to many questions that prior to its development could not even be properly asked. Yet he felt that its method was intrinsically loaded against certain classes of mental phenomena, particularly those states and experiences usually referred to as ‘mystical’ or ‘religious’. These had become pejorative terms within science, synonymous with ‘unverifiable’, ‘subjective’, even ‘meaningless’; but to James, this was a failing not of religion but of science. If it was to be the fundamental account of reality, it needed to find a way to make sense of them.

James was attracted to the philosophical idealism of Georg Hegel and its claim that truth could – indeed, could only – be arrived at by accepting both a proposition and its opposite. Thus he was particularly struck by the way in which Blood framed his discovery in contradictory terms, referring to the nitrous-induced state, for example, as a “condition (or uncondition)”. Setting up the now-familiar reaction of ammonium nitrate with retorts, tubes and cloth bags, James embarked on a practical solution to his conundrum. No less than for Blood, his experience was a revelation. As it had for Davy, the dissociative properties of the gas and the radical abstractions of German idealism proved a magnificently fertile combination, generating a transcendent state in which all dualities and oppositions melted into a euphoric epiphany that made sense of everything. 

James expanded on this revelation in his most enduring work, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), which coalesced around the synthesis that nitrous oxide revealed to him: the phenomena of “extraordinary consciousness”, whatever the truth or otherwise of their revelations, are “psychologically real”. In what has become one of the book’s most frequently-quoted passages, James attributes this realisation explicitly to his inhalation of nitrous oxide:

One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different…No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.

Nitrous oxide entered the twentieth century firmly defined as a surgical and dental anaesthetic, but its mysterious effects on consciousness lingered in the public imagination. Both in fiction and in reality, the prosaic setting of the dentist’s chair emerged as a seat of unexpected revelations, tantalisingly hard to capture in words but imbued with the conviction of a perennial philosophy beyond time and language. In 1916 Theodore Dreiser wrote a play entitled ‘Laughing Gas’ in which a doctor has a supernatural experience while undergoing surgery; in 1936 P.G. Wodehouse published a novel of the same name, in which nitrous oxide is the source of a fourth-dimensional mix-up in the dentist’s chair that creates a mind-swap between two anaesthetised characters. In 1920 the Atlantic Monthly, in which Benjamin Blood and William James’ revelations had previously appeared, printed the anonymous report of an astonished patient whose routine dental treatment became a voyage into the deepest secrets of the universe.

It was through medical channels that nitrous oxide first made its entry into modern drug culture. During the 1960s, especially in the USA, tanks of gas were occasionally ‘liberated’ from their hospital duty: the Grateful Dead took to carrying one in their tour bus, and Hollywood poolside parties were enlivened by filling lilos and inflatable toys from them. But surgical tanks and inhalation masks made it all too easy for recreational users to pass out and asphyxiate under the influence, and a few well-publicised deaths were enough to halt the craze in its tracks. Its recent popularity exploits a different source, the miniature bulbs of compressed gas produced for whipping cream which can be emptied into balloons for inhalation. These are more accessible, cheaper and also safer: if the user loses consciousness the balloon simply falls from the lips and allows normal breathing to resume. 

The first sign of this discovery could be discerned at summer music festivals, where dawn would reveal a carpet of small silver gas cannisters and dew-soaked balloons scattered across the ground. Today these telltale signs can be found discarded in any urban park or street corner. The famously indescribable, unaccountably hilarious and oddly profound experience for so long mediated by chemists, dentists or surgeons is now familiar to millions. Though its devotees still include scientific truth-seekers and mystics in the tradition of Humphry Davy or William James, the majority are perhaps closer in spirit to the crowds at the nineteenth-century laughing gas shows, briefly stepping out of normal consciousness into an effervescent blast of pleasure. The current scene shows little sign of generating a literature as rich as that collected here; perhaps the old problem of capturing the experience in words has been resolved with new languages such as electronic music and psychedelic art. But the balloon, ubiquitous technology and symbol of the modern nitrous experience, will always pay unconscious tribute to the Pneumatic Institution’s green silk bag.

Excerpted from Mike Jay’sStranger Than Fictionavailable in Kindle and paperback editions from Amazon.

Mobile menu - fractal