Nitrous Oxide in the Early 19th Century
When people think of nitrous oxide, which is commonly known as laughing gas or sweet air, they tend to think of dentist visits and anesthesia, global warming, souped-up race cars, or perhaps the recreational abuse of the gas. However, in the early 19th century the gas, which has the chemical formula N2O, was used almost exclusively for entertainment. Demonstrations were held to showcase the gas’s effects on human volunteers. William A. Graham’s description of such an event in Philadelphia, as well as a brief account of his own experience with “nitrous oxyd” (1) in Abingdon, VA, provides a historical account of nitrous oxide use, its potential for abuse, and its role as a scientific novelty at the time.
Nitrous oxide was isolated in 1786 by Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the English jack-of-all-trades who also discovered oxygen, but the famous British chemist Sir Humphrey Davy (1778-1829) first realized N2O’s anesthetic properties, which were ideal for surgeries. Davy was involved in the first human trials of the gas and may have done several hundred nitrous oxide experiments on himself (2) (3). He also became addicted to N2O, underscoring the gas’s risks. Davy’s recommendations for nitrous oxide’s practical use of “relieving a conscious person from pain” (2) came in 1800. Despite that fact, the powerful and dangerous gas was still treated with lighthearted wonder and reckless experimentation 20 years later in the period detailed by Graham.
In the account given by Graham, 15 student volunteers were given nitrous oxide in a large lecture hall that accommodated a variety of on-lookers, both other students and just curious spectators. The “champion who was to breath the gas” was positioned in the middle of the room and held his nose while “a bladder [was] filled with the exhillerating f[l]uid and applied the cork to the mouth of the individual” (1). This process was repeated for all 15 volunteers. Graham notes being surprised that after only two or three inhalations of the gas, the students seemed drawn to the gas-filled mask and began breathing much more heavily from it.
The author notes that the effects on the participants “were various sudden and truly astonishing” (1). On pages 101-102 of the manuscript, Graham gives the following descriptions of some of the behavior exhibited by those who inhaled nitrous oxide:
Its first and general effect was to make them very polite; first bowing to professor Hare; then to the students, then strutting around the room; then dancing and hollowing — Now attacking the whole house knocking down some and running over others. — Mr. Fountain of Va first became very polite making bows to all those around him and then dancing, the effect lasted about one minute. His pulse was quick frequent and rather corded: his face alternately flushed and pale (1).
Graham goes on to note that Mr. Fountain described feeling ill afterwards but that most of the volunteers felt a very comfortable taper that lasted for a while “after its more violent effects were over” (1).
Graham also states that the gas had no positive effect at all on one of the students, but rather left him “as if he had awakened suddenly from a dream: he looked dejected and mortified” (1). The author describes two other students somewhat differently. One goes about the room making grand gestures like an actor in a tragedy, while the other at first seemed to be enjoying the experience immensely only to get very sick and faint. Eventually, all the participants returned to their normal states.
At the time Graham’s manuscript was written in roughly 1827, demonstrations of this nature at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School were done by chemistry professors. In the one detailed by Graham which took place in February 1819, the professor was Robert Hare, Jr. (1781-1858), who held the position during Graham’s time in Philadelphia (4). Graham described Hare thusly: “His Head resembles the buffaloes; his labour the ox — good chemist, experiments well, but explains badly“ (1). Hare spent almost his entire life in Philadelphia, largely due to the fact that his father, Robert Hare, Sr., had been a trustee at the University of Pennsylvania. The family owned a brewery and that had a large impact on the younger Hare’s desire to study chemistry and he eventually started attending the University’s lectures (5) (6).
Robert Hare, Jr. became fascinated with gases through his chemistry work and when the brewery failed in 1815, he unsuccessfully attempted to manufacture illuminating gas. He invented many things, including the calorimeter and the precursor of the blow torch by burning a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen formed from electrolysis, which subsequently led to the creation of the platinum industry. He became acquainted with the much older Joseph Priestley, who had moved to Pennsylvania from London, and Priestley was the first person that Hare showed the “oxyhydrogen torch” (5). It is possible that from this contact Hare’s interest in nitrous oxide was spurred. Hare was the professor of chemistry at the medical school, the largest in the country then, from 1818-1848, which meant that he taught a substantial number of America’s 19th century physicians (4). Due to his position’s responsibilities and his personal interests, Hare would conduct experiments and demonstrations for classes and occasionally the general public on novel scientific advancements of the time, such as with nitrous oxide (4, 6).
The venue for these large demonstrations of nitrous oxide use was often a lecture hall of some sort. Graham writes that “Doct[or] Hare exhibited the effects of the Nitrous Oxyd-gas; in the old University. The room below and the circular gallery above was crowded with spectators and students” (1, 3).
In addition during this time period, travelling lecturers would encourage members of the general public to attend “ether frolics” where either diethyl ether or nitrous oxide would be inhaled. First, these lecturers wanted to demonstrate to people the mind-altering powers of these substances. Second, members of the crowd not under the influence were entertained by the participants, and admission fees were usually charged. An invitation to such an event is shown below. Also, private parties would be held where people would experiment with the effects of nitrous oxide, as illustrated in two of the pictures below. The participants were not aware of the potential long-term health consequences (7).
While modern knowledge of nitrous oxide has advanced significantly from the early 19th century, “its cellular mechanism of action is still not understood” (8). It is a powerful and useful gas with some significant health risks such as brain damage and even death if not used carefully and under the supervision of trained professionals. N2O’s groundbreaking potential for use as anesthesia for surgery was not fully realized until the American dentist Horace Wells (1815-1848) tried to use it as an anesthetic agent in a dental operation in 1845 (9).
Graham tried nitrous oxide on two occasions. A man who is said to be a travelling exhibitionist of chemical experiments stopped in Abingdon, VA while Graham was living there. After Graham inhaled nitrous oxide, “the sensations it produced were of the most delightful character, while inhaling it, leaving an impression like the taste of Cinnamon on the tongue” (1). Clearly it was not against societal norms to experiment with these types of substances and the subject is treated with a light, anecdotal tone.
In the early 19th century, public demonstrations of nitrous oxide’s effects on humans were common in the US. The noted businessman P.T. Barnum, among others, did nitrous oxide shows early on in his career. And when Samuel Colt, who patented the revolver in 1836, needed to raise money to fund production of his new invention, he produced nitrous oxide and, according to historian A.J. Wright, “traveled the Northeast charging 25 cents to people who wanted to see their fellow citizens make fools of themselves under the influence of laughing gas” (3).
By: Lucas Andersen
1. William Alexander Graham, “A Narrative  of Graham’s Journeys, Medical Training and Career 1816-1819 in Lexington, Va., Abingdon, Va., and Philadelphia,” pp. 1-3, Washington and Lee University Library, Special Collections.
2. Davy, H. Researches, chemical and philosophical; chiefly concerning nitrous oxide: or dephlogisticated nitrous air, and its respiration, 1st ed.; Biggs and Cottil: London, 1800. http://books.google.com/books/about/Researches_chemical_and_philosophical_ch.html?id=jhUAAAAAQAAJ (accessed May 14, 2012).
3. Wright, A.J. Nitrous Oxide Demos Fueled Fortunes Of Two 19th-Century Capitalists. Anesthesiology News. 2011, 37, 10. http://www.anesthesiologynews.com/ViewArticle.aspx?d=PRN&d_id=21&i=October+2011&i_id=768&a_id=19201 (accessed May 15, 2012).
4. Penn University Archives & Records Center. Penn Biographies: Robert Hare. http://www.archives.upenn.edu/people/1700s/hare_robt.html (accessed May 15, 2012).
5. Hare, Robert. Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 1st ed.; American Council of Learned Societies: New York, 1972; Vol. VI, pp. 114-115.
6. Hare, Robert. A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, 3rd ed.; John Wiley & Sons: New York, 1982; pp. 242-243.
7. Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland. Ether Frolics and Nitrous Oxide Parties Information and Anecdotes. http://www.aagbi.org/sites/default/files/PRESS %20RELEASE_Misuse%20of%20Anaesthesia%205%20Oct.pdf (accessed May 15, 2012).
8. Mennerick, S.; Jevtovic-Todorovic, V.; Todorovic, S.M.; Weixing, S.; Olney, J.W.; Zorumski, C.F. Effect of Nitrous Oxide on Excitatory and Inhibitory Synaptic Transmission in Hippocampal Cultures. The Journal of Neuroscience. 1998, 18, 23, 9716–9726.
9. Shaw, A.D.S.; Morgan, M. Nitrous oxide: time to stop laughing? Anaesthesia. 1998, 53, 3, 213-215.