Two centuries after its creation by author Mary Shelley, Frankenstein’s monster can’t quite seem to die. But did this creature spring out of Shelley’s mind, fully formed? Not quite. It turns out that the young author relied upon the most up-to-date science of her day in order to spin her chilling tale.
Starting in the late 1700s, the line between life and death appeared to be blurring. Scientists made the shocking discovery of electrophysiology: that electricity affected tissue. Electricity itself was not fully understood, so when the Italian surgeon Luigi Galvani passed a current through the legs of some dead frogs and made them twitch, he came to a somewhat mistaken conclusion. Galvani believed that he’d discovered “animal electricity,” an electric force that resided in the nerves of the frog itself.
Physicist Allesandro Volta disagreed with Galvani, arguing that it was the dissimilar metals used by the surgeon that had made the electricity, and that the frog was just a conductor. Of course, Volta, who soon went on to create the first battery, won that argument.
But it was Galvani’s nephew, physicist Giovanni Aldini, who used the work of both Galvani and Volta to create a spectacle for eager onlookers. In London in 1803, Aldini jolted a criminal’s corpse with electricity. When the current was applied to the face, the jaws clenched! An eye opened! It was…aliiiiiiive!Well, not really. But the science of life and death was all the rage when Mary Shelley composed a ghost story for friends one gloomy summer. So as we celebrate the novel’s 200th anniversary of publication in 2018, remember how a good story can really bring science to life.