Advent calendar / History

Door 23: A Humphry Davy Christmas

twenty three*Please note, on no account inhale nitrous oxide.  It is addictive, and can have serious consequences for your health and wellbeing*

It’s Boxing Day.  The forlorn turkey carcass lurks in the kitchen, wearing a torn, orange party-hat that flew out of a cracker with a poor sense of humour.   Your earlier forensic examination of the TV schedules brought melancholy rather than anticipation.  The Gaviscon ran out at 7pm last night.

What could possibly enliven this situation?

Let me take you back to 1799 to find out what founder member of the Geological Society, Humphry Davy was up to.  Earlier in the year he’d been experimenting with Joseph Priestly’s ‘dephlogisticated nitrous air’ now called nitrous oxide.  In the run up to Christmas, Humphry was still in an experimental mood…

Sir Humphry Davy considers his next experiment

Sir Humphry Davy considers his next experiment

“…I made, on 23 December, at four p.m. the following experiment. I drank a bottle of wine in large draughts in less than eight minutes. Whilst I was drinking, I perceived a sense of fulness in the head, and throbbing of the arteries, not unanalogous to that produced in the first stage of nitrous oxide excitement. After I had finished the bottle, this fulness increased, the objects around me became dazzling, the power of distinct articulation was lost, and I was unable to walk steadily. At this moment the sensations were rather pleasurable than otherwise, the sense of fulness in the head soon however increased so as to become painful, and in less than an hour I sunk into a state of insensibility.

In this situation I must have remained for two hours or two hours and a half.

I was awakened by a head-ache and painful nausea. The nausea continued even after the contents of the stomach had been ejected. The pain in the head every minute increased; I was neither feverish nor thirsty; my bodily and mental debility were excessive, and the pulse feeble and quick.”

So far, so unsuccessful.  But after recovering and, one must assume, continuing his Christmas festivities two days later, the Boxing Day blues seem to have taken hold.  To fill the void, Humphry gets back on the path of experimentation:

“To ascertain with certainty whether the more extensive action of nitrous oxide compatible with life was capable of producing debility, I resolved to breathe the gas for such a time, and in such quantities, as to produce excitement equal in duration and superior in intensity to that occasioned by high intoxication from opium or alcohol.”

Nothing like a challenge, is there?!

“To habituate myself to the excitement, and to carry it on gradually, on December 26th I was enclosed in an air-tight breathing-box, of the capacity of about nine and one-half cubic feet, in the presence of Dr. Kinglake. After I had taken a situation in which I could by means of a curved thermometer inserted under the arm, and a stop-watch, ascertain the alterations in my pulse and animal heat, twenty quarts of nitrous oxide were thrown into the box.”

Humphry neglects to inform us who bought him the air-tight breathing box for Christmas, but I bet he couldn’t guess what it was before he unwrapped it.

"New Discoveries in Pneumatics" - Sir Humphry Davy lectures the Royal Institution

“New Discoveries in Pneumatics” – Sir Humphry Davy lectures the Royal Institution

“For three minutes I experienced no alteration in my sensations, though immediately after the introduction of the nitrous oxide the smell and taste of it were very evident. In four minutes I began to feel a slight glow in the cheeks and a generally diffused warmth over the chest… In thirty minutes twenty quarts more of gas were introduced. My sensations were now pleasant; I had a generally diffused warmth without the slightest moisture of the skin, a sense of exhilaration similar to that produced by a small dose of wine, and a disposition to muscular motion and to merriment.”

I think he probably should had got out of the breathing-box and stopped at this point…

“Twenty quarts more of air were admitted. I had now a great disposition to laugh, luminous points seemed frequently to pass before my eyes, my hearing was certainly more acute, and I felt a pleasant lightness and power of exertion in my muscles. In a short time the symptoms became stationary; breathing was rather oppressed, and on account of the great desire for action rest was painful.  I now came out of the box, having been in precisely an hour and a quarter.”

Time for a mince pie and a cup of tea now Humphry?  Oh…

“The moment after I began to respire twenty quarts of unmingled nitrous oxide. A thrilling extending from the chest to the extremities was almost immediately produced. I felt a sense of tangible extension highly pleasurable in every limb; my visible impressions were dazzling and apparently magnified, I heard distinctly every sound in the room, and was perfectly aware of my situation. By degrees, as the pleasurable sensations increased, I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind and were connected with words in such a manner as to produce perceptions perfectly novel.

“I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorized; I imagined that I made discoveries. When I was awakened from this semi-delirious trance by Dr. Kinglake, who took the bag from my mouth, indignation and pride were the first feelings produced by the sight of persons about me. My emotions were enthusiastic and sublime; and for a minute I walked about the room perfectly regardless of what was said to me. As I recovered my former state of mind, I felt an inclination to communicate the discoveries I had made during the experiment. I endeavored to recall the ideas–they were feeble and indistinct; one collection of terms, however, presented itself, and, with most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr. Kinglake, ‘Nothing exists but thoughts! The universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures, and pains.’

And with that he collapsed on the sofa.

On reflection, that turkey is beginning to look appetising again.

One thought on “Door 23: A Humphry Davy Christmas

  1. Pingback: Door 24: A christmas letter from the geoadvent blog team | Geological Society of London blog

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