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Dalton, John – Philosophical Experiments – THE SINGULAR EFFECTS OF LAUGHING GAS



Type of Spiritual Experience


John wrote better explanations for children as teaching aids than he did in his scientific tracts, which tend to be wordy – unnecessarily so at times.  So we have taken some extracts from his Philosophical Experiments a book with very small print and few pictures, which nevertheless had the objective of providing ‘young persons with the means of obtaining a knowledge of some of the most important phenomena of nature and the application of science to purposes of utility; and secondly to furnish them with an almost inexhaustible fund of amusement for winter evenings and other occasions when exercises in the open air are obliged to make way for indoor recreation.’

There is something quite extraordinary about the idea that he thinks that young persons should be encouraged to inhale laughing gas, and even more extraordinary is the fact he did it himself. 


A description of the experience

John Dalton – Philosophical Experiments


118. Protoxide of nitrogen, nitrous oxide, or, as it is more generally termed, laughing gas, is a compound that the young chemist generally desires to procure as soon as possible [sic] ; and we are induced, therefore, to give the following description of its properties, and of the method to be adopted for obtaining it in a state of purity, although he must not expect to do so without  considerable trouble, and some disappointment. Nitrous oxide is a compound of the same elements as those which constitute the atmosphere ; but, in consequence of containing a greater quantity of oxygen, its effects upon the human frame, when breathed for a short period, are very surprising. [!]

It is not a gas that can be breathed with impunity for any great length of time, yet it can be received into the lungs for a short period without injury. It is termed laughing gas, because its general effect upon persons who respire it is to induce a very strong desire to give way to violent fits of laughter. It does not, however, produce this effect on every individual. Some are made exceedingly melancholy, and others appear desirous of annihilating everything on which they can lay their hands. In general, however, the gas only excites the person who breathes it to laughter.

It acts as a powerful stimulant for a time, but, unlike other stimulants, it is not followed by lassitude, or lowness of spirits, unless, while under its influence, the person is excited to excessive muscular exertion. Sir Humphrey Davy made a variety of experiments with this gas. He administered it to various persons,- and, indeed, was the first to investigate its properties with any degree of accuracy.

Previous to his time, the gas was considered to be unfit for the purpose of respiration, but Davy found that it could be breathed with safety ; and in his further experiments on it discovered the singular effects it produces.

After a few inspirations of it have been made, it causes a sense of lightness and expansion of the chest, and a pleasurable sensation begins to extend over the whole body ; this increases, and is accompanied with a desire to inhale the gas ; respiration becomes, therefore, fuller, and is performed with more energy. Exhilation is soon produced ; and if the respiration is continued sufficiently long, a crowd of indistinct ideas, often in very singular combinations, pass through the mind ; there is an irresistible propensity to laughter, and to muscular exertion and violent efforts are made with alacrity and ease.

These effects, after the inspiration has ceased, continue for four or five minutes, or sometimes longer ; they gradually subside, and what is not the least singular, the state of the system returns almost immediately to its usual standard. We have frequently administered the gas to others, and have breathed it ourselves ; and when this is done in a proper manner, we have never failed to observe or feel the effects above described.

There is, however, some difficulty in administering the gas properly to a person who has never taken it before. It must be enclosed in a bladder, fitted with a stopcock ; and unless the person inhales it from the bladder without allowing any of the atmosphere to enter his lungs at the same time, the experiment will not succeed. The best way is, to close the nostrils with the left hand, and then, forcing all the air possible from the lungs by a strong respiration, to place the stopcock in your mouth, and so breathe in and out of the bladder, at the same time keeping the nostrils quite closed.

If this be done properly, the gas is sure to produce its usual effects. When it is administered to a person, unless he has taken it previously, and is aware of the manner in which it affects him, it is desirable to have someone near to prevent his doing any mischief, in case he should feel so inclined.

Self-command is in general entirely lost for a few minutes, although the individual is perfectly sensible all the time in what a ridiculous manner he is behaving. A bladder capable of holding a few quarts of gas will be large enough, and it is advisable to test the gas by holding a light in some of it before it is taken.


The source of the experience

Dalton, John

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