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Frankness About Frankenstein

While Mary Shelley makes no mention of any electrical equipment in her novel Frankenstein, it is likely that the story was inspired by real-life events with which Mary would have been familiar.

In virtually every film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein, the Creature is brought to life with a jolt of electricity with sparks flying all over. Often there are also the requisite vigorously bubbling flasks associated with the lab of a mad scientist. The fact, however, is that the novel only provides a passing reference to the moment of creation: “It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”

It seems that film directors took the word “spark” literally and interpreted the “instruments of life” to mean some sort of electric generator. While Mary Shelley, who was only eighteen when she wrote the novel in 1818, makes no mention of any electrical equipment, it is likely that the story of Frankenstein was inspired by real-life events with which young Mary would have been familiar. At the time, gruesome public demonstrations of “galvanism,” drew large audiences and were much talked about. In the preface of the 1831 edition,” Mary cites the work of Luigi Galvani as an inspiration for “Frankenstein” and some commentators have suggested that she may even have been taken by her science-loving father to one of Giovanni Aldini’s spectacles.

Giovanni Aldini, being a nephew of Luigi Galvani, had a natural interest in “galvanism,” the application of an electric current to body tissues. It was back in the 1780s that Galvani carried out the experiment that would forever enshrine his name in physics texts. By poking a dead frog simultaneously with rods made of different metals, he had managed to make its muscles twitch! Galvani misinterpreted his finding, believing that his manipulations had released some form of “animal electricity.” It was Galvani’s countryman Alessandro Volta, who correctly concluded that the dissimilar metals, and not the frog, were responsible for the generation of an electric current. The frog was just providing a medium through which current could flow, and it was this flow of electricity that caused its muscles to contract. 

Aldini was fascinated by the effects his uncle had discovered and managed to convince the authorities in Bologna to donate the bodies of executed criminals for further study of galvanism. While he was a dedicated scientist, Aldini was also a showman, carrying out 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 made to chatter and the eyes roll. But Aldini’s most dramatic experiments 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 had decreed, in a fashion not unusual for the times, that his body be used for anatomical dissection. In front of a large crowd of doctors and other spectators, Aldini went to work. As always, he generated an electric current with a “voltaic pile,” the forerunner of the modern battery. Developed by Volta, based on Galvani’s observation, the pile consisted of a set of alternating zinc and silver plates separated by pieces of paper soaked in salt or sulphuric acid. In such an arrangement electrons flow from the zinc to the silver, generating a current. 

Aldini connected a pair of metal rods to the top and bottom of the pile and proceeded to use them to prod Foster’s body. When he attached one probe to the ear and the other to the mouth, the jaw quivered and an eye opened. But the most spectacular result was produced when Aldini maneuvered one of the probes to the rectum. Foster’s body went into convulsions and his arms flew up! It seemed to the spectators that the dead man was on the verge of standing up! Of course, he did nothing of the sort, but the audience did leave with some novel insight into the dramatic effects that an electric current could produce on muscular systems. 

While such demonstrations may have inspired the writing of Frankenstein, it is clear that Mary Shelley was not comfortable with the idea of scientists playing God by attempting to create life. While Victor Frankenstein, who incidentally was not a doctor, is at first successful, his Creation turns evil when he is shunned by society. Shelley’s message seems to be a warning to be careful when taking a new path because it may not lead to where you want to go. Indeed, that point has been capitalized on by alarmists with expressions such as “Frankenfoods” and “Frankendrugs” in reference to cloning, genetically modified foods and mRNA vaccines. While Mary Shelley did have concerns about the directions in which science could be heading, she was not against progress. Frankenstein’s experiment was well-intentioned, in that he aimed "to banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death." Indeed, experiments that explore new avenues come with risk, but there is also risk in taking no risk. No risk, no progress.


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