Creating a modern Frankenstein
March 11, 2018 -- The publication 200 years ago of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein gave the world an intriguing monster and claimed a place in philosophical debate about creation. Two hundred years on, developments in medical science from transplants and artificial limbs to 3-D printing and bionics, are bringing fiction closer to reality.
Mary Shelley started writing “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” in 1816. The first edition was published anonymously in London on March 11, 1818.
The story of Victor Frankenstein -- a young scientist convinced that electricity holds the secret of life -- and his attempt to draw lightning from a storm to reanimate a creature created of body parts, was inspired by an 18th-century quest to understand electricity.
Scientists had been generating static electricity since the 1660s, so-called Leyden Jars, invented by Ewald Jürgen von Kleist in 1745, were used to store electrostatic energy -- the first capacitors were born. But it was not until Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment in 1752 that he proved that lightning was of the same essence.
At the University of Bologna in Italy, surgeon Luigi Galvani observed that static electricity caused muscle spasms in frog’s legs as if alive. He published his findings known as Galvanism in 1791 and became known as the “frog dancing master.”
Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, a professor of physics at Bologna, progressed from frogs legs to larger animals and travelled through Europe demonstrating his experiments.
Aldini also was the first to use electroshock therapy on the mentally ill. He eventually took his experiments to the anatomical theatres of London, UK, where he carried out galvanism experiments on dismembered bodies of humans.
Aldini’s most infamous exhibition took place in London on the corpse of convicted murderer George Foster. Transferred to the Company of Surgeons next to the prison, Aldini attached electrodes to the corpse. The jaws of the body began to quiver, muscles contorted, and one eye opened, according to witness accounts.
When Mary Shelley wrote her seminal work, Aldini’s gruesome corpse experiment was likely her inspiration for Frankenstein.