Monday, April 21, 2008

Not a laughing matter: The man who made lists and the advent of N2O

In last week’s blog I honored Eugine Ehrlich, creator of thesauri, dictionaries and other cerebral goodies for the “intellectually literate”. Today, in the spirit of fairness, I’d like to jot a sentence or two about the creator of the most famous thesaurus probably in the whole world: Peter Mark Roget.

Joshua Kendall, in his fresh on the shelves biography, “The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of ‘Roget’s Thesaurus,’" describes Roget as an obsessive compulsive, prone to bouts of “depression and mental instability”. Most probably, making lists and classifying things according to an “odd binary scheme” was the straw he held onto, the one thing that kept him from falling too hard into the dark world he wanted to avoid. Apparently, in a NY Times article published recently, madness ran in Roget’s family. Perhaps this is what led him to his enduring addiction to a substance known as “nitrous oxide”, today better known as “laughing gas”, and is used extensively in dentists’ offices.

From some web sources, I have learned that nitrous oxide (or N2O) was invented by Jason Priestly, who in 1792, “reported the isolation of a mixture of nitrogen oxides that he called dephlogisticated nitrous air, later changed to nitrous oxide. He did several experiments with the gas but never inhaled it.” A few years later, “the Pneumatic Institution (a small medical facility in Bristol England) conducted the first tests into the mind altering qualities of the drug in the 1780's.” This is where Sir Humphrey Davy and Roget come in (see below, and see here for a nitrous oxide timeline).

At this time, “various scientists and others were doing experiments with the gas and its use as a recreational drug spread.” The drug was introduced in the US in the 1840’s, by the way, when “side show entertainers gave laughing gas demonstrations”. The dentist Horace Wells happened to be watching one of these shows and started using the gas in his practice, leading the drive for surgical anesthesia. In the 1860’s, decades after such use in the UK, laughing gas was popular as a recreational drug in America.

One interesting thing I’d like to mention, of particular interest to some romance writers and readers, I’m sure, is that there is clear mention of Roget in Sabrina Jeffries’ last book “Let Sleeping Rogues Lie,” where she gives insight into the use of nitrous oxide in 19th century England for entertainment, rather than anesthetic, purposes. From Sabrina Jeffries’ author’s note: nitrous oxide was used in medicine only around 1846, despite the fact that its anesthetic properties were discovered, in her words, way before in 1799 by Sir Humphrey Davy (who wrote a hulking 579 page book about it!).

In the intervening years between 1799 and 1846, before the substance came to be recognized for its medical benefits in England (that is, to numb pain), it was therefore primarily utilized for entertainment purposes, in much the same way as opium. People inhaled nitrous oxide in order to “get high” and as a means of “escape” just like they would many other drugs, and some were hopelessly addicted to it. So do I know of any well known characters who fell under nitrous oxide’s spell? Sabrina Jeffries mentions a few, in addition to Roget—namely Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who used it to buffer his opium addiction), Robert Southey, and Thomas and Josiah Wedgwood (that's right, you guessed, those guys from the famous family of potters, descended from the Darwin - Wedgwood family... and here I'm refering to THAT Darwin, too), who all enjoyed getting regularly “stoned”. I did have fun reading this book, and it prompted me to do a little research about this particular 19th century underworld populated by the intelligentia and artistic genii addicted to the use of the gas.

Since we are on this subject, here’s a more comprehensive list of renowned nitrous oxide users lifted from David Wallechinsky’s “Book of Lists”:

• Allen Ginsberg, American Poet
• Gregori Corso, American Poet
• Humphrey Davy, English Chemist
• Ken Kesey, American Writer
• Peter Mark Roget, Author of Roget's Thesaurus
• Peter Ouspenski, Russian disciple of Gudjieff
• Robert Southey, English Poet
• Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English Poet
• Theodore Dreiser, American Writer and Journalist
• Thomas Wedgewood, English Physicist
• William James, American Philosopher
• Winston Churchill, English Politician

Yes, Churchill, too. Who'd have imagined? My mom told me she knew about this from a History Channel documentary. Unfortunately, I missed that particular one.

So, let's get on the home turf: is use of nitrous oxide legal in the US? According to one website, it isn’t unless it's for medicinal purposes; but, here’s what it says: “Technically it is not illegal to possess nitrous oxide in the USA, it is an unscheduled drug. However, in many states it is illegal to use nitrous oxide for recreational purposes. If you use it to get high, you are committing a crime. Possession of nitrous oxide with intent of inhaling is illegal in many areas, unless you are under the care of a dentist or doctor.”

Others, such as Dr. Drew (ever caught him on TV spewing his wisdom on relationships and sex?), say that use of the drug is tough to regulate, because it’s “everywhere”: “Pressurized whip cream cans containing enough of the gas to get high are sold at convenience and grocery stores all over. Dead heads and neighborhood head shops peddle metal or plastic canisters of pure N20 (known as crackers in inhalant lingo) for pocket change. Also hawked at head shops are poppers, small devices specifically made to pierce crackers, releasing a powerful blast of nitrous oxide. And in college, enterprising students pilfer entire tanks of the anesthetic from campus laboratories, then sell it by the balloonful at frat parties and in dorms for as little as $5 a whack.”

I wonder what Roget would have thought of this, of how this invention has been both a blessing and a curse and continues to be so in modern society. I wonder what he would have thought of its use among children and youth. Roget was early in catching on to the trend; he played an active role in assisting Sir Humphrey Davy in Bristol, UK, with his nitrous oxide research. Thus, he went to great lengths and traveled far to nurse his habit and experience, in Dr. Drew's very words, its "euphoric effects.”

But Roget was not only a depressed drug addict and creator of a thesaurus. He also did many other laudable things which he is less known for. He was both a prolific writer and an inventor.

He was a genius who before his death in 1869 gave considerable contributions to the world. Here are some: he “invented an improved slide rule used until the development of pocket calculators, and the pocket chessboard… [and] he did research on vision physiology which he published in 1825 that is the conceptual basis for motion pictures.”

In case you need one, a FREE copy of Roget’s Thesaurus may be found here at Project Gutenberg.

~ Angela Guillaume ~
"Breathtaking Sensual Romance"
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