In 1910, many people feared that all life would be extinguished when the Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet. In 1881 it had been discovered that comet’s tails contained a lethal gas related to cyanide, called cyanogen. In 1910, as the comet passed between the sun and the Earth, people feared the planet would be sprayed with the poisonous gas from the sun’s blast. In reality, the gas was 23 million kilometres away, and the concentration of gases in the tail was minute.
A few months before the event, however, a single article in the New York Times suggested that the gas could snuff out all life on the planet. Actually only one rather imaginative astronomer thought this, but the press went wild, and in spite of a later retraction saying there wouldn’t be enough cyanogen gas to kill a single insect, the damage was done. Various different theories mushroomed. One especially wild prediction said the comet’s tail would convert Earth’s nitrogen into nitrous oxide – laughing gas. The Earth’s population would consequently become delirious and then die. Another theory said that the tail would trigger a huge explosion in the atmosphere, create a Biblical deluge, and leave the burnt, soaked Earth with no oxygen or life. Still another said the Earth’s magnetic pole would be displaced, ‘electrocuting every inhabitant of the globe’.
In May 1910 freak snow in Tennessee was blamed on the comet. One man charged with wife-beating in New York said the comet had made him do it. In New York lots of ‘Comet parties’ were held, with ‘Cyanogen cocktails’, and hotel roofs were given over to all-night parties. Shops sold seats designed for comet-watching. Adverts for beds, light bulbs, soap, soda and custard all incorporated comet themes. Quacks sold ‘comet pills’ in Texas and New York, along with leather ‘inhalers’ to help you breathe when the comet’s tail struck.
On the 18th of May, some jittery New Yorkers stuffed rags in doorways. Rhode Islanders swore they could smell cyanogen gas, which was actually just Providence’s usual smell. In some other states, workers refused to work and held all-night prayer vigils.
In Rome and France, people held ‘comet suppers’, and some sealed themselves away with oxygen cylinders, hoping they could ‘survive the brief period of contact between the two atmospheres, and they saw before them in this event a wonderful new future of experiences in a thinly populated world’. Candle-lit processions were held in the Caribbean and in Mexico. In England few people sealed themselves away. By the next morning, unsurprisingly, everyone was still alive.
Nitrous oxide was first synthesised in 1772 by Joseph Priestley, but it wasn't until the 1840s that it was used as an anaesthetic.
The great Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogoff (1810-81) was originally wary of using laughing gas as an anaesthetic as he was accustomed to the screams and reactions to pain of his patients and found it much more difficult to operate on an unresponsive body. The new technology was also treated with suspicion by patients: the fear of the loss of control that comes with loss of consciousness was not uncommon.
The first man to develop nitrous oxide industrially was George Poe, Edgar Allan Poe’s less famous but more successful cousin. By 1883 he was supplying about 5000 dentists with laughing gas.
Some of you say religion makes people happy. So does laughing gas.
As far back as the 18th century, the British upper-classes were using laughing gas as a recreational drug. Chemist Humphrey Davy investigated the effects of breathing it (as he did many gases, which largely contributed to his death) and reported sensations of 'thrill and pleasure'. He even wrote a poem: ‘Yet are my eyes with sparkling lustre fill'd; Yet is my mouth replete with murmuring sound ;Yet are my limbs with inward transports fill'd; And clad with new-born mightiness around.’
Davy held ‘Laughing Gas Parties’ with such luminaries as Robert Southey who wrote to Thomas Wedgwood (son of Josiah) ‘Davy has invented a new pleasure, for which language has no name - it makes one so strong and so happy!’ and Coleridge, who said ‘The first time I inspired the nitrous oxide, I felt a highly pleasurable sensation of warmth over my whole frame... The only motion which I felt inclined to make, was that of laughing at those who were looking at me.’
Laughing Gas is still used as a recreational drug, especially in the music festival scene. However people using 'hippy crack' might like to know that it is a powerful greenhouse gas which is almost 300 times worse than CO2 and has replaced CFCs as the most potent destroyer of ozone in the upper atmosphere. It is also created in huge quantities by bacteria in sewage treatment plants and marshes polluted with agricultural fertiliser.
Laughing gas can survive in the atmosphere for 150 years.
The only motion which I felt inclined to make, was that of laughing at those who were looking at me.