Most histories of the concept of the ether have been conducted in terms of the physics which first deemed it necessary, and then dispensed with it. But we have begun to see that there are other contexts and usages which could not help but drift into thinking about the ether, considered as a broader cultural practice of thought. William Thomson is reported as having said in 1896 to George Fitzgerald: 'I have not had a moment's peace in respect to electromagnetic theory since November 28, 1846. All this time I have been liable to fits of ether dipsomania, kept away at intervals only by rigorous abstention from thought on the subject' (quoted Barrow 2001, 130). Thomson's little joke is made possible by the practice of what was called 'ether-drinking', which was still prevalent among 1890s decadents and bohemians such as Jean Lorrain, whose Sensations et Souvenirs of 1895 has recently been translated as Nightmares of an Ether Drinker (2002). It suggests a connection between the inebriation of the ether idea and the more literal kinds of intoxication by the substance that, not entirely by coincidence, shares its name.
Benjamin Ward Richardson is at pains to point out that, in referring to his mooted medium of nervous action and response as an 'ether', he means no reference to the chemical substance of that name, but uses the term rather 'as the astronomer uses it when he speaks of the ether of space, by which he means a subtle but material medium, the chemical composition of which he has not yet discovered' (Richardson 1874, 364). But in fact, Richardson would go on shortly afterwards to take a close interest in the effects of ether-intoxication, conducting an investigation at first hand of the epidemic of ether-drinking around Draperstown in Northern Ireland and subjecting himself experimentally to its effects. That there is a more than verbal coincidence between the ether of space and chemical ether is suggested by his view that, since the nervous ether is best considered as a kind of gas or vapour, it might be subject to contamination:
Through the nervous ether, itself a gas or vapor, other gases or vapors may readily and quickly diffuse…Thus those vapors which, being diffused into the body, produce benumbing influence - as the vapors of alcohol, chloroform, bichloride of methylene, ethyllic ether, and the like - produce their benumbing effects because they are not capable of taking the place of the natural ether into which they diffuse; they interfere, that is to say, with the physical conduction of impressions through what should be the pure atmosphere between the outer and the inner world. A dense cloud in the outer atmosphere shall shut out any view of the sun; a cloud in the inner atmosphere of my optic tract shall produce precisely the same obscurity. (Richardson 1874, 372)
The substance known as ether, more precisely diethyl ether, which is produced from a combination of distilled alcohol and sulphuric acid, was first distilled and described by the German scientist Valerius Cordus in 1540, while Paracelsus described its hypnotic effects at around the same time. It was known as 'sweet vitriol' until 1730, when W. G. Frobenius gave it the name 'spiritus aetherius', which yielded in turn to its more common name (Priesner 1986). But the difficulty of producing it reliably meant that it did not come into common use until the mid-eighteenth century. Its most obvious property was its extreme volatility. A quack pamphlet of 1761 extols it as
the most light, most volatile, and most inflammable, of all known Liquids: It swims upon the highest rectified Spirit of Wine as Oil does upon Water, and flies away so quickly as hardly to wet a Hand it is dropped upon; from which Properties it probably obtained it's Name. It is so readily inflammable, as to take Fire at the approach of a Candle, before the Flame reaches it. Any Electrified Body will also produce the same Effect. (Turner 1761, 4)
Turner also claimed it as a powerful solvent, with particular uses in dissolving gold, which was frequently drunk for medicinal purposes.
It has a greater Affinity with Gold than Aqua Regia has … thus a true and safe Aurum potabile is readily prepared for those who want such a medicine. The Union of these two Substances is very remarkable, one being the heaviest solid Body we know, and the other the lightest Liquid. (Turner 1761, 4-5)
Recreational ether-drinking (so called, though in fact ether-sniffing or inhalation was an equally popular form of intake) began on a serious scale only after its anaesthetic properties were discovered in 1846 by Thomas Morton, who marketed it as 'letheon'. Germany was swept by 'etheromania', and there were other epidemics in Michigan and Lithuania. When Benjamin Ward Richardson tried it on himself in the 1870s, he experienced sensations of attenuation and lightening, as though the substance were capable of imparting its own diffusive qualities to those who took it in: 'periods of time were extended immeasurably … the small room in which I sat was extended into a space which could not be measured … the ticking of the clock was like a musical clang from a cymbal with an echo' (quoted Jay, 2000, 142)). He also recorded an odd sensation that suggests an involuntary invocation of his own theory of the mediating nervous ether: 'all things touched felt as if some interposing, gentle current moved between them and the fingers' (Jay 2000, 142). The ether displays the same ambivalence as the astronomical ether, for it both enlarges sensibility, and yet acts as a mediator or cushion for it. Awareness is both 'spaced out', and brought into intimate contact with everything.
The mid-century indulgence in ether recapitulated the craze for the inhalation of nitrous oxide that was a feature of the turn of the nineteenth century. Nitrous oxide was first seriously investigated by the young Humphry Davy in collaboration with Thomas Beddoes, who in 1798 had established in Bristol the Pneumatic Institution. Beddoes, who had also experimented with the medical uses of ether in 1794, began by concentrating his attention on oxygen, which had been identified in 1772 and described in detail by Joseph Priestley (1774-7). Then, in 1799, Beddoes and Davy turned their attention to nitrous oxide, which had a grim reputation, probably because of the explosive associations of the word 'nitre' (saltpetre). As well as subjecting the gas to detailed chemical investigation. Davy also inhaled it regularly and in large quantities to see its effects on himself. Beddoes and Davy had made the acquaintance of Coleridge and Southey, who were among their experimental subjects.
The gas caused what Beddoes called 'high orgasm' of the muscles (Beddoes 1799, 15), in the form of quivering and tingling - 'I felt a thrill in my teeth', recorded Southey (Davy 1800, 508). (One might speculate enjoyably about the continuity between the vibratory modes signalled in the poetic word 'thrill' and the word 'buzz', which became common usage to signify the excitement, specifically of intoxication, during the later twentieth century.) This was often expressed in an irresistible desire to giggle (hence its later name, 'laughing gas'). It intensified sight and hearing and gave a sense of delicious spaciousness and sublime exhilaration: a Mr Wedgwood said that 'I felt as if I were lighter than the atmosphere, and as if I was going to mount to the top of the room.' (Davy 1800, 519). There seemed to be few deleterious effects, except on ladies with a history of hysteria, itself, of course, conceived as a highly vaporous condition of the body (Connor 2003), whom it sometimes sent off into fits (Beddoes 1799, 16-18). Its only effect on Coleridge, who was more accustomed perhaps to the hard stuff, was to cause him to stamp his feet on the floor uncontrollably.
From the beginning, the gas was interpreted in poetic or metaphysical terms. Southey was guarded in the account of his experiences he wrote to Beddoes and Davy, but was much less so in a letter he wrote to his brother: 'Oh, excellent air-bag! Tom, I am sure the air in heaven must be this wonder-working air of delight!' (quoted, Kendall 1954,. 46). Davy, who, after his first experiments in April 1799, quickly developed a taste for the gas, and could not see the silken air-bag in use without the craving for a whiff coming on, had himself enclosed in an air-tight inhalation-box (appropriately enough on December 26th), to inhale 20 quarts of nitrous oxide. The effects were spectacular:
A thrilling extending from my chest to the extremities was almost immediately produced. I felt a sense of tangible extension highly pleasurable in every limb; my visible impressions were dazzling and apparently magnified, I heard distinctly every sound in the room and was perfectly aware of my situation. By degrees as the pleasurable sensations increased, I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind and were connected with words in such a manner, as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorised; I imagined that I made discoveries… My emotions were enthusiastic and sublime; and for a minute I walked around the room perfectly regardless of what was said to me. As I recovered my former state of mind, I felt an inclination to communicate the discoveries I had made during the experiment. I endeavoured to recall the ideas, they were feeble and indistinct; one collection of terms, however, presented itself: and with the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr. Kingslake, "Nothing exists but thoughts! - the universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!" (Davy 1800, 487-9)
In 1801, Davy moved to London's Royal Institution, where he conducted public demonstrations of the gas, one of which is represented in a Gillray caricature. Nitrous oxide would be closely linked with ether during the 1840s, when their anaesthetic properties came to prominence.
Though the nineteenth century experienced many new forms of gas and vapour (of which steam power and gas lighting were the most important and pervasive) as well as important new ideas about gases, most notably, James Clerk Maxwell's statistical explanations of their behaviour, it also inherited a complex and widely-diffused idea of what might be called a 'pneumatic sublime' from Romanticism. The great scientists of the Romantic period were Joseph Priestley and Humphry Davy, both of whom made their reputations in the study of gases. This sense of the authority and fascination with the vaporous in this period would lead T. E. Hulme to characterise Romanticism as 'always flying, flying up into the eternal gases' (Hulme 1994, 62-3). Nitrous oxide was the somewhat grotesque literalisation of the principle of airiness that is to be found throughout Romanticism - the inspiration of wind, the power of soaring ascent, the force of diffusion and the diffusion of force. Not that this is the first time that gas has been linked to prophecy - after all, the pythian priestess at Delphi had been reputed since the second century to derive her powers of prophecy from a vapour ascending from a crack in the earth.
Late nineteenth century supernaturalism, with its apports and levitations, usually of conspicuously heavier-than-air subjects, such as the extensive Mrs Grundy or the spacious Madame Blavatsky, solidified and domesicated this fantasy of the pneumatic sublime, and popular entertainment was quick to tune in as well. Robert Houdin, the performer from whom the antispiritualist Houdini would take his name, explained the Indian Conjuror's illusion, in which his son, Auguste Adolphe appeared to sit on air, as an effect of the imbibing of ether 'When this liquid is at its highest degree of concentration', he solemnly mock-explained, 'if a living being breathes it, the body of the patient becomes in a few moments as light as a balloon' (Milbourne 1975, 145).
Intoxicants are part of the history of the material imagination, or ongoing cultural invention of matter, and invention of itself through it. The idea of the ether cannot be thought of without including the dream of the etherial that is focussed on intoxicating gases, even though this has been assumed to be a distraction or irrelevance to most historians of ideas. The thought of the paradoxical substance called ether is also a materialisation of thought itself, which, insofar as it is necessary to render matter truly intelligible, is never merely 'cultural'. Davy's discovery of the capacity of an aeriform substance to transform the texture of thought itself, along with his resulting intuition that the universe may be composed of ideas and impressions, is perhaps something more than a delusion, given that it anticipates the imbrication of matter and thought that has become a theme of quantum physics.
This paper was given as a lecture at the conference of the British Association of Victorian Studies, University of Keele, 3 September 2004.