Taking the airs.

The eighteenth century was the century of the pneumatic chemists and of the discovery of gases or as they termed it different kinds of air. Following the invention of the pneumatic trough by Stephan Hales it became possible for researchers to produce, isolate and study gases. To quote an early post:

Most European eighteenth-century chemist accepted and worked within the framework of the phlogiston theory and produced a great deal of new important chemical knowledge. Most notable in this sense are the, mostly British, so-called pneumatic chemists. Working within the phlogiston theory Joseph Black (1728–1799), professor for medicine in Edinburgh, isolated and identified carbon dioxide whilst his doctoral student Daniel Rutherford (1749–1819) isolated and identified nitrogen. The Swede Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) produced, identified and studied oxygen for which he doesn’t get the credit because although he was first, he delayed in publishing his results and was beaten to the punch by Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), who had independently also discovered oxygen labelling it erroneously dephlogisticated air. Priestley by far and away the greatest of the pneumatic chemists isolated and identified at least eight other gases as well as laying the foundations for the discovery of photosynthesis, perhaps his greatest achievement.

Henry Cavendish (1731–1810) isolated and identified hydrogen, which he thought for a time might actually be phlogiston, before going on to make the most important discovery within the framework of the phlogiston theory, the structure of water.


Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) – Frontispisce of Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air Pneumatic trough, and other equipment, used by Joseph Priestley Source: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the highpoint of all this gas activity or at least the most bizarre outgrowth of it was the Pneumatic Institute set up in Bristol by Thomas Beddoes in 1799 to study the medical effects of the recently discovered and isolated gases.


Thomas Beddoes, pencil drawing by Edward Bird Source: Wikimedia Commons

Beddoes was born in Shropshire on 13 April 1760 and after being educated at Bridgnorth Grammar School and Pembroke College Oxford he entered the University of Edinburgh to study medicine in the 1780s, where he study chemistry under Joseph Black.


Mezzotint engraving by James Heath after Sir Henry Raeburn Source: Wikimedia Commons

He took his medical degree at Pembroke in 1786. After 1786 he visited Lavoisier in Paris. Beddoes was appointed professor of chemistry at Oxford University in 1788. His lectures were very popular but he was regarded as a political radical because of his sympathy for the French Revolution. He resigned from Oxford in 1792.

Between 1793 and 1799 he ran a clinic for the treatment of tuberculosis in Bristol. This led to him setting up the Pneumatic Institute in 1799 to investigate the treatment of diseases with gases. At first Beddoes’ idea might seem a little bizarre given how recent the discovery of most gases had been and basically how little was actually known about them. However, two strong indications inspired Beddoes’ lines of inquiry. Firstly carbon dioxide was known to prevent decay in organic materials. This led to trials by the navy in dosing seamen with carbonated water, invented by Priestley, to try and prevent scurvy. Today, in our age of worldwide trade, fresh fruit and vegetables are transported in a carbon dioxide atmosphere to prevent spoilage. The other was the known effects of oxygen. Priestley had amply demonstrated the life sustaining properties of oxygen and also recorded the mild high obtained from breathing the pure gas. Lavoisier and Simon Laplace had demonstrated experimentally the role that oxygen plays in mammalian respiration. On the basis of this primary knowledge Beddoes set out to see if other gases possibly possessed medical properties.

L0001624 Bristol Pneumatic Institute.

Bristol Pneumatic Institute Source: Wellcome Institute via Wikimedia Commons

Beddoes could not afford to finance his planned institute himself and failed to find a single sponsor so he took a route that now seems very 21st century. We see crowd funding as a product of the Internet age but it existed already in the eighteenth century under the name subscription. Beddoes found enough subscribers under his circle of friends to finance his endeavour. Amongst the principle subscribers were several members of the Birmingham Lunar Society to whose wider circles Beddoes belonged. James Watt, like Beddoes, was a protégé of Joseph Black and Joseph Priestly shared Beddoes’ political views. Watt designed and built the technical equipment for the Institute.


Apparatus designed by James Watt in preparation of the Pneumatic Institution Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Watt family provided assistance in another way as well. Beddoes needed a superintendent/laboratory assistant for his Pneumatic Institute and Watt’s son Gregory recommend his friend Humphry Davy (1778-1829), a young self taught chemist for the post. Beddoes was impressed by Davy’s, at that point unpublished, researches and appointed him to the post just twenty-one years old; a decision he possibly came to regret.


Sir Humphry Davy, Bt, by Thomas Phillips Source: National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

Davy was a fearless practical researcher and set out to investigate the effects of various gases by testing them on himself, writing detailed protocols of the results of these experiments. He proceeded to test the effects of inhaling the recently discovered carbon monoxide. Now we know that carbon monoxide is highly poisonous but Davy didn’t and his career as a professional chemist almost ended before it had really begun. He inhaled pure carbon monoxide, which resulted in his becoming comatose. Fortunately he had taken the precaution of filling several balloons with pure oxygen and instructed his assistant to revive him if he should lose consciousness. Revived he wrote a detailed report of the experiment and its results, and then he proceeded to repeat it. The young Davy knew how to live dangerously.

His next experiment was considerably less dangerous but would prove far more fateful. He began to test the properties of nitrous oxide, known colloquially as laughing gas, a name coined by Davy. Nitrous oxide was one of the gases discovered and investigated by Joseph Priestly. Davy inhaled pure nitrous oxide and got high! In fact he got very high and he liked it. He liked it very much. Davy effectively became addicted to nitrous oxide inhaling it several times a day, everyday. He also began to subject other people to nitrous oxide highs and recording their reactions and behaviour whilst under the influence. Things got a little out of hand.

Davy, a very talented young man, was not just a chemist but also a recognised romantic poet well connected to Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Davy invited his poetical friends down to Bristol for what were, in reality, drug parties. These drug orgies combined with the fact that Davy experimented with nitrous oxide on female subjects led to the ruin of the Institute’s reputation and the end of the whole of Beddoes research programme. There were accusations of impropriety with the female subjects; what had taken place whilst they were under the influence?

Beddoes faded into the background but Davy was able to rescue his reputation and get appointed to the post of assistant lecturer in chemistry, director of the chemical laboratory, and assistant editor of the journals of the recently established Royal Institution in London in 1801, where he went on to become one of the greatest research scientists of the nineteenth century. Although Gillray’s legendary cartoon from 1802 show that his laughing gas reputation had not been forgotten.


1802 satirical cartoon by James Gillray showing a Royal Institution lecture on pneumatics, with Davy holding the bellows and Count Rumford looking on at extreme right. Dr Thomas Garnett is the lecturer, holding the victim’s nose. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One probably other casualty of Davy’s drug trips was the medical use of nitrous oxide. Although Davy had, in his protocols, recorded the anaesthetic effects of the gas it had become so disreputable that it would be another fifty years before it was actually used as an anaesthetic.


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