The science behind Frankenstein’s monster

Written by Francesca Lake

Science behind Frankenstein

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein over two centuries ago, in 1818. The book is a great example of science fiction, but just how much science was behind Frankenstein?

Electricity was a hot topic in the years leading up to Mary Shelley publishing Frankenstein. Records suggesting some awareness of electricity date back to 2750 BCE (with reference to electric fish). The term electric, derived from electricus – related to the Latin and Greek terms for amber –, appeared in print in 1646. Further work through the 17th and 18th centuries saw key discoveries, including Benjamin Franklin’s reputed 1752 kite experiment that demonstrated that lightning was an electrical phenomenon. It was from this point that Frankenstein started to become a literal reality.

The Frog Dancing Master versus the father of batteries

In 1786, Luigi Galvani at the University of Bologna (Italy), while dissecting a frog during an electrical storm, saw a muscle contraction when touching its nerves with a pair of scissors. Later, near a static electricity machine, an assistant saw similar results by touching a scalpel to a nerve in the frog’s leg. This led to a series of frog-based experiments, resulting in the observation that a bi-metallic arc between muscles and nerves could cause movement. This led to his theory of ‘animal electricity’ – electricity from within in the frog itself. He also became known as the ‘Frog Dancing Master’.

Alessandro Volta – a friend and prominent researcher in the field – replicated Galvani’s results. However, he came to a different theory as to the origin of the electricity – he believed ‘metallic electricity’ came from the two metals used in Galvani’s experiment to conduct the so-called ‘animal electricity’, and that the frog was simply a conductor. Indeed, he went on to demonstrate that animal tissue was not required to produce a current. This split the scientific world and developed into a bitter feud, in which Volta is thought to have feared for his life.

A modern-day Frankenstein’s monster?

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Making dead men rise

1799 saw Volta win the battle, using this research to invent the voltaic pile – essentially the world’s first battery. William Nicholson – a purported friend of Shelley’s father – used the pile to discover electrolysis.

In another use of the pile, Galvani’s nephew and assistant, Giovanni Aldini – a proponent of ‘animal electricity’ – is reported to have combined the two’s work, touring Europe with the pile to demonstrate electricity for medical purposes, jolting corpses and making decapitated criminals sit up. He also used electric current to treat patients with personality disorders.

In his most infamous demonstration, he made an executed corpse move in Newgate Prison (London, UK). A book about the criminals in that prison described what happened: “On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion,” – any onlooker could be forgiven for thinking the criminal had come back to life.

While Shelley makes no reference to the work of Aldini, given he was a contemporary it seems reasonable that this science in some way inspired Dr Frankenstein’s own raising of the dead. Another reported friend of Shelley’s father and possible inspiration was Humphry Davy, who wrote that “science has…bestowed upon man powers which may be called creative; which have enabled him to change and modify the beings around him…”.