The Laughing Gas That Won the West

Albany Argus, October 14, 1833
Albany Argus, October 14, 1833

I stumbled quite by accident upon this ad in an October 1833 number of the Albany Argus. It describes a coming visit of one ‘Dr. Coult’ to the Albany Museum to give live demonstrations of nitrous oxide gas – laughing gas! For three nights only, Albany patrons would be able to witness the ‘extraordinary powers’ of this ‘exhilarating gas’ on live human subjects, who, the readers were told, were liable to laugh, sing, dance and attempt fantastic feats of strength. Ladies were assured that ‘not a shadow of impropriety’ would attend the exhibition. And all were assured that ‘Dr. C.,’ being a ‘practical chemist,’ would not deliver any impure ‘gases.’ Admission was 25 cents.

1840 wood engraving
1840 wood engraving

The ad mentions Sir Humphrey Davey as the English chemist who first discovered the effects of nitrous oxide on the ‘animal system.’ In fact, Davey nearly died from testing the gas on himself. But while Davey noted in 1800 the potential of nitrous oxide to serve as an anesthetic, it would be another 44 years before anyone actually used the gas for this purpose. In the meantime, the primary use of nitrous oxide was as a form of entertainment, especially among the English upper classes. The fad spread, and by the 1830’s there were quite a few travelling exhibitionists offering to give the masses a whiff of the pleasurable stuff – all in the name of scientific inquiry, of course. ‘Dr. Coult’ was, apparently, one such nitrous oxide exhibitioner.

But when I Googled ‘Dr. Coult,’ to see if his travels took him elsewhere than Albany, I made an interesting discovery. ‘Dr. Coult’ was a pseudonym for none other than Samuel Colt, of Hartford, Connecticut, the future inventor of the Colt Revolver, the ‘Gun That Won the West!’ So how was it that Sam Colt became a purveyor of laughing gas?

Samuel Colt
Samuel Colt

Colt was a prodigy. As a young boy at his father’s textile mill, he was fascinated with the workings of the machinery. He became particularly interested in the idea of a pistol that could fire multiple rounds in sequence. When he was seventeen, he went to sea, and, as he later related in his memoirs, his observation of the ship’s wheel gave him the inspiration for his new pistol design, with a rotating chamber. He even carved a model out of wood. When he returned to Hartford, his father commissioned two metal models of his son’s design, but both models failed. Lacking the capital to have further prototypes made, Sam Colt decided to raise some money. How he chose to become a pitch man for nitrous oxide is not clear, but in 1832, at the age of eighteen, ‘Dr. Coult of London, New York, and Calcutta’ (he had actually been to Calcutta during his sea journey) set out from city to city demonstrating the effects of laughing gas.

Colt’s pretensions of being a doctor nearly got him into serious trouble. He was once on a Mississippi river boat whose passengers were suddenly stricken with yellow fever. Not allowed to land, the people turned to ‘Dr. Coult’ for a remedy. Colt said he liberally prescribed the various purgatives kept in the boat’s medicine chest and offered the nitrous oxide gas to all the sufferers. To his great astonishment, all on board recovered, which caused Colt to conclude (more astutely than many medical men of his time), that the passengers probably never had yellow fever in the first place.

Colt Armory, Hartford, Connecticut (1857)
Colt Armory, Hartford, Connecticut (1857)

In any event, after four years, Colt had raised enough money to have high quality working models and engineering drawings produced. In 1836, Colt patented his revolutionary revolver design in London, Paris, and Washington, D.C. and began producing them in the same year. The most famous version – the Colt 45 ‘Peacemaker,’ the so-called ‘Gun That Won the West,’ – was not produced until after Colt’s death. But those Albanians who flocked to the Museum that October in 1833 in search of laughing gas, helped to propel Samuel Colt to glory and riches, and, in some small way, to win the west!

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