21 March 2020

Humphry Davy and nitrous oxide

Excerpts from a longread at Public Domain Review:
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...

Now the gas took Davy to a dimension he had not previously visited. Objects became dazzling in their intensity, sounds were amplified into a cacophony that echoed through infinite space, the thrillings in his limbs seemed to effervesce and overflow; and then, suddenly, he ‘lost all connection with external things’, and entered a self-enveloping realm of the senses. Words, images and ideas jumbled together ‘in such a manner, as to produce perceptions totally novel’: he was no longer in the laboratory, but ‘in a world of newly connected and modified ideas’, where he could theorise without limits and make new discoveries at will...

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...
... and after knowing about Humphry Davy for about 50 years, it wasn't until writing this post this morning that I realized how his first name is spelled.  You learn something every day.  (here's a relevant ngram graph)


  1. 20 quarts? I don't have a good way of judging that, but that sounds like a lot of nitrous.

    1. 20 quarts is about 20 liters, which would be equivalent to about 80-100 average-size farts.

  2. My understanding is that his little parties kicked off something of a mania for the gas. See https://www.general-anaesthesia.com/people/laughinggas-poster.html


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...