In virtually every film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, the creature comes to life with an electric shock with sparks flying everywhere. Often times there are also the necessary vigorous bubble flasks associated with a mad scientist’s lab. The point is, however, that the novel only provides a fleeting reference to the moment of creation: “It was a gloomy November night that I saw the accomplishment of my work. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I gathered the instruments of life around me, in order to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.
It seems that the directors took the word “spark” literally and interpreted the “instruments of life” as a kind of electric generator. While Mary Shelley, who was only eighteen when she wrote the novel in 1818, makes no mention of electrical equipment, it is likely that Frankenstein’s story was inspired by events in the real life that young Mary would have been familiar with. At the time, horrific public manifestations of “galvanism” attracted a large audience and caused a lot of talk. In the preface to the ‘1831 edition, Mary cites the work of Luigi Galvani as the inspiration for’ Frankenstein ‘and some commentators have suggested that she might even have been taken by her science-loving father to one. performances by Giovanni Aldini.
Giovanni Aldini, being a nephew of Luigi Galvani, had a natural interest in “galvanism”, the application of an electric current to the tissues of the body. It was in the 1780s that Galvani carried out the experiment which would forever inscribe his name in the texts of physics. By simultaneously pushing a dead frog with rods made of different metals, he had managed to make his muscles twitch! Galvani misinterpreted his discovery, believing that his manipulations had released some form of “animal electricity.” It was Galvani’s compatriot, Alessandro Volta, who correctly concluded that dissimilar metals, and not the frog, were responsible for generating an electric current. The frog was only providing a medium through which current could flow, and it was this flow of electricity that made its muscles contract.
Aldini was fascinated by the effects discovered by his uncle and managed to convince the authorities in Bologna to donate the bodies of the executed criminals for further study of galvanism. While a devoted scientist, Aldini was also a showman, performing his experiments in a theatrical atmosphere open to spectators. He stimulated the severed heads of cows, horses, dogs and people with an electric current and demonstrated that the teeth could be chattered and the eyes rolled. But Aldini’s most dramatic experiences involved intact bodies.
Perhaps his most famous “performance” took place in 1803 at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. George Foster had been sentenced to hang for murder, and the judge ruled, in a way not unusual for the time, that his body be used for an anatomical dissection. In front of a large crowd of doctors and other spectators, Aldini set to work. As always, it generated an electric current with a “voltaic battery”, the ancestor of the modern battery. Developed by Volta, based on Galvani’s observations, the heap consisted of a set of alternating zinc and silver plates separated by pieces of paper soaked in salt or sulfuric acid. In such an arrangement, electrons flow from zinc to silver, generating a current.
Aldini connected a pair of metal rods to the top and bottom of the stack and used them to push Foster’s body. When he attached one probe to his ear and the other to his mouth, his jaw trembled and one eye opened. But the most spectacular result was produced when Aldini maneuvered one of the probes up to the rectum. Foster’s body went into convulsions and his arms flew away! It seemed to the spectators that the dead man was about to get up! Of course, he didn’t do anything like that, but audiences walked away with new insight into the dramatic effects an electric current can have on muscle systems.
While such demonstrations may have inspired Frankenstein’s writing, it is clear that Mary Shelley was not comfortable with the idea of scientists playing God while trying to create life. While Victor Frankenstein, who by the way was not a doctor, succeeds at first, his Creation goes wrong when he is shunned by society. Shelley’s post appears to be a warning to be careful taking a new path as it may not lead to where you want to go. Indeed, this point has been capitalized by alarmists with expressions such as “Frankenfoods” and “Frankendrugs” in reference to cloning, genetically modified foods and mRNA vaccines. While Mary Shelley had concerns about the directions in which science might be heading, she was not against progress. Frankenstein’s experiment was well-intentioned, in that it aimed to “banish disease from the human body and make man invulnerable to anything but violent death.” Indeed, experiments that explore new avenues carry risks, but there is also a risk in not taking any risks. No risk, no progress.
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