Oh Excellent Air Bag: Under the Influence of Nitrous Oxide, 1799–1920


Paperback / 216mm x 140mm / 144 pages
70lb/105gsm paper / introductory essay / colour images

“Wonderful … edited with wit and imagination” — The Guardian
“An eye-opening compilation … enthralling” — The Paris Review



The summer of 1799 saw a new fad take root in a certain circle of British society: the inhalation of nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas”. The pioneer of these experiments was a young Humphry Davy, future President of the Royal Society, whose descriptions of being under the influence, as well as those penned by his clique, are among the most remarkable in the history of science. From its subsequent use in “laughing gas shows” through to its eventual employment in anaesthetics, the “delectable air” would go on to inspire more than a century of extraordinary writings that combined the scientific, the poetic, and the philosophical in a wholly new way. This volume collects the most striking examples of both these first-hand accounts and the secondary literature they spawned, including writings by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, William James, and Theodore Dreiser. Far from the images of balloon-huffing festival-goers and post-dental nonsense that nitrous oxide tends to conjure today, this unique anthology reveals the fascinating pedigree of the gas — a history at the very heart of the romantic movement and one of the great early blooms of psychedelic literature.

In addition to the historical texts, the volume boasts a new introductory essay by Mike Jay and an extensive selection of images, including instructional material from early anaesthetic handbooks, and satirical prints from the likes of James Gilray and George Cruikshank. All printed on a lovely-to-handle 70lb/105gsm paper.

“I was an inhabitant of the Elysium of Rousseau, or the island of Calypso, of Fenelon, blown by a rudely malicious blast into a world of reptiles”

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