Party like it's 1799! How 'hippy crack' dates back to the 18th century

Years before it was a common sight to see festival-goers inhaling nitrous oxide from a balloon, the summer of 1799 saw Britain's upper class flock to 'laughing gas parties' to inhale nitrous oxide.

The recreational inhalation of so-called 'hippy crack' began as a phenomenon amongst the British elite in the eighteenth century.

For a period, nitrous oxide was the fashionable drug of choice and many remarkable public figures would flock to 'laughing gas parties'.

It began in 1799 when the twenty-year old chemist Humphry Davy - later to become Sir Davy, president of the Royal Society - began experiments on himself in Bristol to determine the medical effects of inhaling nitrous oxide.

A group of poets carousing and composing verses under the influence of laughing gas, made in 1829. In the 18th century, nitrious oxide was the drug of choice for many, and people would head to 'laughing gas parties'

A group of poets carousing and composing verses under the influence of laughing gas, made in 1829. In the 18th century, nitrious oxide was the drug of choice for many, and people would head to 'laughing gas parties'

A satirical cartoon depicting the chemist Humphry Davy administering nitrous oxide gas to a woman at the Royal Institution whilst Count Rumford, a physicist and inventor, looks on in 1830

A satirical cartoon depicting the chemist Humphry Davy administering nitrous oxide gas to a woman at the Royal Institution whilst Count Rumford, a physicist and inventor, looks on in 1830

Detail of a young Humphry Davy working the bellows as he experiments with laughing gas (nitrous oxide) to the delighted crowd at the Royal Institution, London in 1802

Detail of a young Humphry Davy working the bellows as he experiments with laughing gas (nitrous oxide) to the delighted crowd at the Royal Institution, London in 1802

Sir Humphry Davy depicted in. 1830 Humphry Davy was a chemist who discovered the pleasurable effects of 'hippy crack' in 1799

Sir Humphry Davy depicted in. 1830 Humphry Davy was a chemist who discovered the pleasurable effects of 'hippy crack' in 1799

With his assistant Dr Kinglake, Davy would heat crystals of ammonium nitrate, collect the gas released in a green oiled-silk bag, pass it through water vapour to remove impurities and then inhale it through a mouthpiece.

Who was Sir Humphry Davy?

The British chemist was born on December 17, 1778 in Penzance, Cornwall.

He went to study social science at Bristol and became interested in gases.

In 1799 he began experiments on himself in Bristol to determine the medical effects of inhaling nitrous oxide.

He published the results of this work in 1800, in a piece entitled  'Researches, Chemical and Philosophical.'

This garnered the young scientist a reputation, and he soon became a fellow at the Royal Society in 1803.

Sir Humphry became one of Britain's leading scientists and was knighted in 1812. 

As well as his study of nitrous oxide he was known for his work on electro chemistry and for inventing the miner's safety lamp.

Miners faced danger from methane gas which could be sparked off by the candles in their helmets.

Sir Humphry invented a helmet that enclosed the flame, and could not heat enough gas to cause explosions. 

 

It was a rather reckless exercise given that the gas was thought to be fatal at the time. 

But during his experiment, Davy was pleased to find that not only could nitrous oxide be breathed, it also offered euphoric effects - and was highly pleasurable 'particularly in the chest and extremities'.

Nicknaming it 'laughing gas' for its ability to make him giggle, Davy began to take nitrous oxide outside of laboratory conditions, returning alone for solitary sessions in the dark, inhaling huge amounts and also after drinking in the evening - though he continued to be meticulous in his scientific records throughout.

During one session of self-experimentation, Davy noted that the gas actually numbed his toothache and suggested that it could perhaps be used during surgical operations. He also reportedly used it was as a way to treat his hangover.

Soon however, Davy became addicted to the gas and he constructed an 'air-tight breathing box' in which he would sit for hours inhaling enormous quantities of nitrous oxide so he could have even more intense experiences, on more than one occasion, nearly dying.

A few months later when Davy was scientifically convinced that nitrous oxide was safe to inhale, he began to allow others to partake in the substance. By day, he gave the gas to patients, carefully noting their reactions.

However in the evenings, Davy invited perfectly healthy

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