Nitrous Oxide Canister

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Description of Artifact

Canister for Pressurized Nitrous Oxide,(N2O). Steel or iron. Hollow vessel, cylindrical in shape, tapered and perforated at one end. Oxidized. Traces of green colored paint layer intact. Found summer 2003 underneath the Lehman Street Bridge in downtown White River Junction, Vermont by Doug Brown, Bellingham Washington. Approx. 2.5 inches in length, 3/4 inch in diameter.



Also known as “Laughing Gas” or “Hippie Crack,” in the late 18th century it was known as "phlogisticated nitrous air". It is most commonly used in medicine by dentists as an anesthetic. N2O’s first recreational uses are sometimes, erroneously, attributed to the 19th century by William James, who observed subjects under its influence claimed to hold the secret to the universe.

Historical Context

The isolation of nitrous oxide as a gas was discovered in 1772 by Joseph Priestly. The English pottery designer and manufacturer Josiah Wedgewood provided financial support to the Pneumatic Institute near Bristol, England where Dr. Thomas Beddoes and Humphry Davy manufactured and experimented with nitrous oxide in 1799 and 1800. Contemporary experiments in rudimentary photographic techniques were also conducted by the Institute. In the 1830’s Samuel Colt, calling himself “Doctor” or “Professor Coult”, toured the United States giving nitrous oxide demonstrations to raise money for production of his revolver prototype.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) is said to have been fond of the drug. Short-lived effects include analgesia, euphoria, dizziness, and flanging of sound. Aphrodisiac effects also apparently recorded. Nitrous Oxide is not toxic, but it can potentially cause frostbite, and after long-term use, symptoms similar to vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies. The naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau also experimented with nitrous oxide. “By taking the ether the other day I was convinced how far asunder a man could be separated from his senses, “Thoreau began a lengthy journal entry. “You expand like a seed in the ground. You exist in your roots, like a tree in winter. If you have an inclination to travel, take the ether: you go beyond the farthest star.”

Other Historic Usage

Horace Wells, born in Hartford Village, Vermont claimed to be the inventor of an early technique to administer the gas which involved pumping it "from an animal bladder via a wooden tube into the patient's mouth while his or her nostrils were compressed".

Legal Regulation

Possession of N2O not illegal in the United States, however in many states, recreational use is criminalized.


  • M. Mendes. 2007. Orig. internship research.