What a gas!

Discovered by an obscure 18th-century poet, inhaled by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, put to good use by dentists ever since, nitrous oxide is a most cultured gas. What's more, it makes you laugh...
Two hundred years ago, on 17 April 1799, a young English poet resident in Bristol took up a green silk bag and set himself deliberately to inhaling a full four quarts of a mysterious new substance, generally known as gaseous of azote, or oxide of septon, or dephlogisticated nitrous gas. It was a brave, perhaps even a foolhardy experiment, but the youth's courage was rewarded almost instantly. He felt a "highly pleasurable thrilling, particularly in the chest and the extremities. The objects around me became dazzling and my hearing more acute. Towards the last inspirations, the thrilling increased..."

The reckless young poet and researcher (we would now call him a "scientist", a term still uncoined in 1799) was Humphry Davy; the substance was nitrous oxide, vulgarly referred to by generations of dental patients as "laughing gas"; and Davy's risky experiment, written up and published the following year as Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide... and its Respiration, made him an intellectual star at the age of 21.

Davy was quick to grasp at least some of the implications of his experiences, tentatively predicting that nitrous oxide "...may probably be used with advantage during surgical operations in which no great effusion of blood takes place". Even in his exalted or (literally) "inspired" state, however, Davy was not quite prophet enough to foresee the future career of his gas in all its peculiarity. Two hundred years on, we can see that Davy's deep gulps of N2O had their consequences not just for dentistry but also for poetry, philosophy, psychology and show business; and the full implications of that pioneering encounter are once again becoming the subject of lively debate.

For example, the author and journalist Mike Jay, who has included several contemporary accounts of the nitrous oxide breakthrough in his forthcoming Penguin anthology of drug literature, Artificial Paradises, considers that Davy's heavy breathing marks "a significant - though largely unrecognised - milestone in the history of science and the modern mind", not least because: "As a deliberate intoxication by a new chemical substance not found in nature, it may... stand as the birth of modern synthetic or "designer" drugs in general... it was the moment which opened the portal to world upon world of experience which, before Davy's experiment, would have been unimaginable."

Mr Jay's version of Humphry Davy as " the first modern psychonaut" may seem rather outlandish to those brought up on uplifting tales of Davy as the philanthropic gentleman who invented the safety lamp for miners. And yet it isn't so very far from the view of Davy held by his friends and co-experimentalists, particularly his fellow poets. Robert Southey, for one, was quite clear about his hedonistic motives for assisting Davy, and wrote to one of his circle in terms of bubbling enthusiasm: "Oh, Tom! such a gas has Davy discovered! Oh, Tom! I have had some. It made me laugh and tingle in every toe and fingertip. It makes one strong, and so happy! So gloriously happy! Oh excellent gas bag! Tom, I am sure the air in heaven must be this wonder-working gas of delight."

The playwright John Tobin stressed the similarities between a hit of N2O and the exaltations of literary art. "The feelings," he wrote, "resembled those produced by a representation of an heroic scene on the stage, or by reading a sublime passage in poetry when circumstances contribute to awaken the finest sympathies of the soul." And though most readers will know something about Coleridge's long and sorry tryst with opium, history has largely forgotten that he was also fond of nitrous oxide. After inhaling some, Coleridge reported that he "could not avoid, nor indeed felt any wish to avoid, beating the ground with my feet; and after the mouth-piece was removed, I remained for a few seconds motionless, in great ecstasy".

Later in life, Coleridge referred admiringly to Davy as "the Father and Founder of philosophic Alchemy, the man who, born a poet, first converted Poetry into Science and realised what few men possessed Genius enough to fancy".

With fans of this calibre, it was little wonder that Davy's discovery soon became the object of a craze, and that some of the leading public figures of the day made their way to Bristol to breathe his heavenly new air: Peter Mark Roget, later famous for his thesaurus but at the time a rising doctor; the engineer James Watt, who gave Davy a hand with the construction of new gas masks and chambers; and the master potter Josiah Wedgwood.

Reputable men, one and all, but it was not long before the practice of inhaling N2O became highly disreputable, not to say scandalous. Rumours began to spread about staid ladies driven to acts of gross impropriety by their inhalations. One of these reports spoke of a plucky miss who took her intoxicating lungful and ran amok.

"To the astonishment of everybody, the young lady dashed out of the room and house when, racing down Hope-square, she leaped over a great dog in her way, but being hotly pursued by the fleetest of her friends, the fair fugitive, or rather the temporary maniac, was at length overtaken and pursued, without further damage." (Something there for the next, "controversial" TV adaptation of Jane Austen?)

Thanks to this and similar episodes, the practice of inhaling nitrous oxide came to be seen as dangerous and depraved. "Pneumatic medicine" went rapidly out of fashion and the inhalation of nitrous oxide became associated with mesmerism, animal magnetism and other sordid phenomena.

But the visionary gas could not be so easily confined. Blown out by the doctors, it drifted across the Atlantic and went into showbiz, being taken up by creative entrepreneurs, including the celebrated circus man PT Barnum. Crowds flocked to see Barnum's "Laughing Gas" exhibitions much as they now go to see a Paul McKenna stage hypnotism show. "The effect of the gas," as one poster advised punters in 1844, "is to make those who inhale it either LAUGH, SING, DANCE, SPEAK or FIGHT..." (The same poster stressed that "The Gas will be given only to gentlemen of the first respectability. The object is to make the entertainment in every respect a genteel affair." Of course, of course.)

One of the punters who attended this very show was Horace Wells, a local dentist who had already been experimenting with techniques of anaesthesia. He acquired some N2O, inhaled it, and - as his wife put it - "made a spectacle of himself". Undaunted, he persevered, and asked a colleague to knock him out with a strong dose of the substance and then remove one of his teeth. Eureka: nitrous oxide was firmly launched on its errand of mercy to humankind's rotten teeth.

The rest of that side of the N2O story is well enough documented. The story of its adventures in the realm of ideas and sensations is patchier, and stands in need of further research. Coleridge and Southey were certainly not the last poets to have used nitrous oxide as a gateway into other modes of perception - Allen Ginsberg, for one, wrote a lengthy ode about his hours under laughing gas. But when the full history of N2O comes to be written, one name is bound to dominate the field: that of William James, the great American psychologist, writer and philosopher. In Varieties of Religious Experience, James wrote: "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." Of all the experiences that had led him to this conclusion, James said, the most important was his own inhalation of oxide - a gas which can "stimulate the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree". He said: "I know more than one person who is persuaded that in the nitrous oxide trance we have a genuine metaphysical revelation."

There are distinct similarities between James's accounts of "mystical" states of consciousness and those recorded by Davy after his own sessions with the gas. "Every thing seemed alive, and myself part of the series of visible impressions; I should have felt pain in tearing a leaf from one of the trees..."

Davy's work with nitrous oxide is to be commemorated by the medical profession at a conference a few weeks hence, and - so rumour has it - by less orthodox souls in less sober ways, too. Whatever our attitude to drugs, to mysticism or (come to that) to poetry, it seems only fair that we should celebrate Humphry Davy's bold intakes of breath 200 years ago by remembering him as a more complex, more unsettling and considerably more visionary man than the boringly worthy, rags-to-riches hero of Victorian folklore; to remember him, among other things, as the man who came round from a nitrous oxide trance shouting the thrilling news that "Nothing exists but thoughts!"

As old hippies everywhere might put it: Davy was a real gas.