Nitrous oxide was first identified in the late 18th century by the British scientist and theologian Joseph Priestley, who was also responsible for isolating oxygen. Sir Humphrey Davy, of the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, introduced the gas to friends and colleagues and coined the term ‘laughing gas’ due to the reactions it provoked.
In the early 19th century a practice of piping the gas into sealed auditoria, whilst audiences were entertained by comic acts on stage, came into vogue. These ‘laughing gas parties’ were primarily the preserve of the upper classes, and were seen as more civilised entertainment than the debauched alternatives (mostly involving alcohol) of the poorer.
In the late 20th century, as the technology to compress the gas into portable canisters became more widely available, the use of nitrous oxide began to spread to a wider using group, becoming especially popular amongst teenagers who could purchase the canisters more easily than alcohol or other drugs. Nitrous oxide has become the focus of media attention after a number of cases linking it to deaths have come to light, and whilst (as with any substance) there are potential health risks associated with its excessive use, such as lack of oxygen to the brain, it is certainly not a new phenomenon or a more dangerous substance now than it has been in the past.