Here’s What It Was Like to Discover Laughing Gas

This is basically the 1799 version of that YouTube clip “David After Dentist”

Humphry Davy
Sarah K. Bolton: Famous Men of Science. (New York, 1889)

In 1799, a chemist and inventor named Humphry Davy started experimenting with nitrous oxide, the gas we now call “laughing gas.” He wanted to know what the gas might do to people, and to find out he started inhaling it himself, recording the sensation. Public Domain Review explains what happened next:

He began to take the gas outside of laboratory conditions, returning alone for solitary sessions in the dark, inhaling huge amounts, “occupied only by an ideal existence”, and also after drinking in the evening – though he continued to be meticulous in his scientific records throughout. Later in the year he would construct an “air-tight breathing box” in which he would sit for hours inhaling enormous quantities of the gas and have even more intense experiences, on more than one occasion nearly dying. A few months after he started the experiments Davy began to allow others to partake, at first his patients but then also perfectly healthy subjects chosen from his circle of family and friends, including the heir to the Wedgwood pottery empire, the future compiler of Roget’s thesaurus, and the poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

But, as he was a scientist, he required all his laughing gas subjects to record their experience. Public Domain Review recently posted the scanned copies of those experiences. 

J.W. Tobin wrote, “When the bags were exhausted and taken from me, I continued breathing with the same violence, then suddenly starting from the chair, and vociferating with pleasure, I made towards those that were present, as I wished they should participate in my feeling. I struck gently at Mr. Davy and a stranger entering the room at the moment, I made towards him, and gave him several blows, but more in the spirit of good humor than of anger. I then ran through different rooms of the house, and at last returned to the laboratory somewhat more composed; my spirits continued much elevated for some hours after the experiment…”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “Then I first inspired the nitrous oxide, I felt a highly pleasurable sensation of warmth over my whole frame, resembling that which I remember once to have experienced after returning from a walk in the snow into a warm room. The only motion which I felt inclined to make, was that of laughing at those who were looking at me.”

Mr. Hammick wrote, “I had not breathed half a minute, when from the extreme pleasure I felt, I unconsciously removed the bag from my mouth; but when Mr. Davy offered to take it from me, I refused to let him have it, and said eagerly, ‘let me breathe it again, it is highly pleasant! it is the strongest stimulant I have ever felt!’”

You can leaf through Davy’s entire document on laughing gas to read more, here. It's basically the 1799 version of "David After Dentist," so, enjoy.

David After Dentist

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