Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Windbag apostate"

I have posted intermittently about Coleridge, Humphry Davy, and their shared enthusiasm for nitrous oxide (here and here). But I had not realized that Coleridge and Robert Southey were "involved with early experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Experiments were performed by Cornish scientist Humphry Davy." Here are some more details, from an oddly written biographical piece about Davy:
One of his first discoveries at the Pneumatic Institution on the 9th of April 1799 was that pure nitrous oxide (laughing gas) is perfectly respirable, and he narrates that on the next day he became absolutely intoxicated through breathing sixteen quarts of it for near seven minutes. This discovery brought both him and the Pneumatic Institution into prominence. The gas itself was inhaled by Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge among other distinguished people, and promised to become fashionable, while further research yielded Davy material for his Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide, published in 1800, which secured his reputation as a chemist.

Soon afterwards, Count Rumford [ed. !!], requiring a lecturer on chemistry for the recently established Royal Institution in London, opened negotiations with him, and on the 16th of February 1801 he was engaged as assistant lecturer in chemistry and director of the laboratory.
And I hadn't known about Davy's theory of light:
the well-known experiment in which he sought to establish the immateriality of heat by showing its generation through the friction of two pieces of ice in an exhausted vessel, and further attempt to prove that light is "matter of a peculiar kind", and that oxygen gas, being a compound of this matter with a simple substance, would more properly be termed phosoxygen. Founded on faulty experiments and reasoning, the views he expressed were either ignored or ridiculed; and it was long before he bitterly regretted the temerity with which he had published his hasty generalizations.
Anyway all of this gives a new significance to Coleridge qua "windbag apostate." Not to mention Southey as "quaint and mouthy." (I seem to remember there being a cartoon of Coleridge as a windbag, but Google isn't being helpful on this front. Also: would Byron have meant the pun on quaint? One assumes it was just a little anachronistic...) I should remark that the reason I went looking for Coleridgeana was this Language Log post about Coleridge's denunciation of "talented," two years after Southey is quoted in the OED using the word...

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