How Nitrous Oxide Inspired Early Psychedelic Literature

A conversation with author Mike Jay on nitrous oxide's remarkable history.
July 23, 2016, 4:00am

Main image courtesy of Robert Seymour's Living Made Easy series

I love jotting down nonsensical snippets of conversation I overhear at music festivals, parties, and other drug-friendly gatherings. I've catalogued trustafarian musings like "At our core, we're interstellar beings," "Dog feet are a good idea," and most spectacularly, "I feel like a deer that for some reason has the ability to travel in and out of heaven."


Imagine for a second that these quotes came from respected members of Victorian society—powdered wigs and all—and you've got the focus of Oh Excellent Air Bag: Under the Influence of Nitrous Oxide 1799-1920. This anthology of original accounts from the earliest days of laughing gas (out now via The Public Domain Review) features poets, scientists, and philosophers offering such musings as "I felt like the sound of a harp," "He seemed… to be bathed all over with a bucket full of good humour," and "It would require a pen, made of a quill, plucked from an angel's wing, to describe half the pleasures arising from this source."

This manner of speech was wholly new in the early 19th century, well before our culture's current surplus of armchair philosophers and aspiring gonzo journalists. Even Thomas Beddoes, who owned the first lab in which nitrous oxide was synthesized, prefaced his own sensory descriptions with the following parenthetical: "Why should one fear to use ludicrous terms when they are expressive?"

Indeed, Oh Excellent Air Bag's curators believe that their findings comprise some of the earliest-known psychedelic literature. Author Mike Jay, who previously explored nitrous oxide's beginnings in his book The Atmosphere of Heaven, penned an introduction to this chronological collection of essays, scientific observations, and poetry, as well as assisted with its curation. VICE spoke with him about the drug's remarkable history.

Colored etching by Robert Seymour, 1829

How prevalent was the use of other recreational drugs during this time period?
Mike Jay: Opium was used very widely, and it was a medication that most people were familiar with—but it wasn't thought of as a mind-altering drug until Thomas De Quincy's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. People didn't use opium for philosophical investigations, though. There's also a bit of writing about hashish—particularly in the French tradition—which was becoming known in the West by 1850. Baudelaire and the French decadent poets were taking it, and some scientists experimented with it too. Ether was also very popular.

There wasn't really a category of illegal drugs like we have now. These [drugs] were all seen as medicines with interesting and odd effects. We still have things like that— Parkinson's disease medicines give people bizarre hallucinations, but we don't think of them as mind-altering drugs.


What differed in the way nitrous oxide entered the fold?
In the 19th century, nitrous oxide was the go-to drug for what we might now call psychedelic science. There was no LSD or other psychedelics. It all started when [Beddoes' assistant] Humphrey Davy synthesized nitrous oxide in a laboratory in 1799. He inhaled it and had this really bizarre, extraordinary experience of consciousness alteration. The chemical reaction by which he did it was simple, so anybody who was set up with a laboratory could have a go at it.

[Nitrous oxide] raised all of these extraordinary questions, like: How could a gas isolated in a laboratory have this effect on the human mind? How could it make you suddenly feel happy and euphoric for no reason? Why did it make you laugh? Why did it give you this feeling of cosmic revelation? What's the connection between mind and body? Where do ideas and feelings come from? The 19th century was the great century for discovering the mind, so for anybody who was interested in these ideas during this time, nitrous oxide was the go-to drug to investigate further.

Illustration by Thomas Rowlandson

What differentiates these writings on nitrous oxide from Paris' mid-19th century "drug literature" scene?
They follow different cultural threads. Nitrous oxide got involved with anesthesia halfway through the century. But because of the drug's many dimensions, early on Davy and Beddoes brought on was members of other disciplines—poets, artists, literary figures—to get the nitrous experience. [The feeling from nitrous oxide is] intense, and it's obvious while you're having it, but it's really hard to describe. Davy figured all that out and said, "We need a new language of feeling to describe our state of consciousness when we take this gas."

At the time, Davy was very friendly with early Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, who were trying to find ways to talk about states of mind and emotions that nobody had ever talked about before. So Davy got everybody involved in the experiments to write about their experiences. Those [writings] have never been reproduced before, so it's great to see them—it's kind of the beginning of psychedelic literature. When the hashish experiments in Paris started in the mid-19th century, the doctor who convened them looked back and read all of Davy's work, said "This is what I'm trying to do," and convened a similar group of scientists, artists, and poets.


It's interesting that all of these inter-disciplinary minds converged on the scene immediately. How did that happen?
Beddoes was a guru figure to Coleridge and Southey, and he also brought Davy in as his lab assistant, so they all met during the course of the project. Beddoes is a real interesting figure—a political revolutionary, very much on the radical edge of British culture, he brought a lot of interesting people together. They had great medical ambitions for nitrous oxide, but it was hard to interest the medical profession because nobody had any idea of how this stuff might work, or what the therapeutic applications might be. Also, they were a marginal, radical group of people who you didn't want to associate with.

Oddly enough, the writings became popular, and people got the idea that it was this extraordinary gas that had strange effects. You'd have nitrous oxide demonstrations as an evening's entertainment, or scientific lectures, or variety shows with magic and hypnotism. That's when it got the name "laughing gas." It was discovered by dentists when they watched people taking it in public and not feel any pain until the gas wore off—a big problem with dentists' business model at the time was that nobody wanted the pain of dental procedures and tooth extractions. So nitrous oxide went from philosophical experiments, to the seamy world of carnivals and fairgrounds, and then it was accepted as a great medical breakthrough.

Illustration by James Gilray

Had nitrous oxide been discovered and tested more recently, do you think it would have still been explored for medical use?
Pretty much everything we think of now as an illicit drug once had medical or therapeutic applications in a clinical setting before becoming part of a public scene. If something gets known as a street drug nowadays, it becomes much harder for it to become accepted in medicine—we're seeing that with everything from psilocybin to ketamine. It's always an uphill battle to get approval.

The first mention of psilocybin mushrooms in European medical writing also occurred in England in 1799. Was there something about the state of British science, medicine, or culture at the time that led people to be more curious about mind-altering substances?
The end of the 18th century was the great age of classification, when everybody started trying to nail down all kinds of things that, in the past, had been labeled as folklore, mythology, or weird superstition. In the 1760s, famed taxonomist Carl Linnaeus wrote a book called Inebriantia, which was the first catalog of intoxicants. He rounded up everything from all over the world— coca leaf and tobacco from the Americas, betel nut and opium and hashish and different types of alcohol—which nobody had listed at that point. Linnaeus looked around the world and said, "Every culture has their own favorite intoxicants," which was an idea that I don't think anybody would've had before that time.

The identification of psilocybin mushrooms was interesting. It was random that there happened to be a doctor around to write and publish a report when people [who ate psilocybin mushrooms] started acting strangely. People always believed there were poisonous mushrooms—ones that had strange effects or made you delirious—but no one nailed down which exact species. At the same time, the discovery of nitrous oxide was part of Beddoes' program of isolating and testing different gases. They're both part of the same process of classification.

Oh Excellent Air Bag: Under the Influence of Nitrous Oxide 1799-1920 is out now on The Public Domain Review.

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