Mary Shelley’s science fiction novel Frankenstein was published 200 years ago this year. It was written at a time of extraordinary scientific advances and science was a popular topic of conversation in coffee houses, clubs and well-to-do drawing rooms.
In the introduction to the 1831 edition of her novel, Mary Shelley discussed some of the science that influenced Frankenstein. She wrote in very vague terms about experiments in galvanism, spontaneous generation and the principle of life. What experiments was she referring to? What science fact might have influenced her great work of science fiction?
The piece of vermicelli that moved
The idea of being able to create life from dead matter wasn’t a new idea in Shelley’s time. For thousands of years natural philosophers had speculated about how tiny creatures could suddenly emerge from mud, dirt or even rotting corpses. Without the benefit of microscopes it was near impossible to see the tiny eggs that flies and other insects laid before living creatures emerged. The idea of “spontaneous generation” was still very current in the early nineteenth century.
One famous experiment, which appeared to prove that life could be created without parents, involved a bit of food and a lot of patience. A piece of vermicelli was placed under a glass dome, to isolate it from outside influences. After a while the piece of vermicelli was seen to move. It is unlikely the experimenters were working in completely sterile conditions and something must have contaminated the vermicelli, grown and made it appear to move all by itself.
In Frankenstein, Shelley took the ideas of spontaneous generation to an extreme. A human body could be seen as a biological machine that could function correctly if it was properly constructed. Perhaps a creature could be constructed from parts and brought to life.
The fascination with human anatomy had reached a peak at the turn of the nineteenth century. In the UK, a number of private anatomy schools opened in the major cities. Anatomy professors and surgeons passed on their knowledge and skills to eager medical students.
Anatomy schools, and their collections of anatomical specimens, might have provided inspiration to Shelley. However, the surgical skills they taught would not have been a great help to her character Victor Frankenstein when he was constructing his creature. Surgery at that time was mostly concerned with cutting bits off rather than reattaching them. The idea of transplanting material between individuals was in its infancy but some aspects of plastic surgery was surprisingly advanced.
An increasing number of duels fought in the sixteenth century meant more and more people were walking around without noses. There was an interest in using skin grafted from another site on the body, often the top of the arm, to patch the gap. Extravagant scaffolds were constructed to hold the arm in place while the flap of skin slowly connected to the skin around the missing feature.
Mary’s character Victor would have had to transplant all the internal organs as well as skin, something no surgeon at the time would have contemplated. Victor, like his real-life contemporaries, would have had no concept of tissue matching and wouldn’t have thought twice about using material from different species, let alone different human individuals.
The “flying boy”
Building a creature from parts was certainly not easy, but Victor Frankenstein’s greatest achievement was bringing a collection of dead material to life. The details of the procedure in the novel are frustratingly vague. Shelley writes about a “spark of life”, which could be almost anything. However, an electrical spark is the most likely explanation.
The century before Frankenstein was written had seen tremendous advances in the understanding of electricity. One of the first people to investigate the phenomenon seriously was Stephen Gray. He was living at Charterhouse, a kind of retirement home for those who had served their country. Gray spent his retirement years conducting electrical experiments and he made a number of important discoveries. He devised spectacular demonstrations to illustrate his theories, one of which became known as “the flying boy”.
Charterhouse also had a school attached and no one seemed to have minded Gray borrowing one of the boys for his experiments. The child lay on a platform that was hoisted towards the ceiling. The boy was charged with static electricity and he could then use his hands to attract pieces of paper. Sparks could be drawn from his nose.
The image of a body laying on a platform, hoisted up in the air, with sparks flying and a scientist enthusiastically waving his arms in the foreground, is not so far from modern film depictions of Victor Frankenstein bringing his monster to life.
Electric fluid from the clouds
Cinematic depictions of the moment Frankenstein’s creature is brought to life often have a thunder storm raging in the background. It is usually implied that it is lightning that provides the “spark of life”. Could Mary Shelley have been influenced by one of the most famous electrical experiments of all time?
Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite-flying experiment is referenced in the Frankenstein novel. Franklin was an enthusiastic investigator into all things electrical but at the time no one was certain that lightning really was an electrical phenomenon. Franklin proposed an experiment to prove it.
The story goes that Franklin and his son tied a key to a kite and flew it into a thunder storm. Nothing happened at first but, just when he was about to give up, Franklin noticed the fibres on the string attaching the key to the kite were raised, as if charged by electricity. He brought his hand towards the key and felt a series of satisfying shocks.
The experiment is very well-known, although it almost certainly didn’t happen in the way it was originally reported. Franklin would have been well aware of the dangers of lightning and probably got someone else to hold the kite string, maybe one of his slaves. He wasn’t even the first to conduct this kind of experiment, the French beat him to it by several months in an equally dangerous experiment conducted by Thomas-François Dalibard in May 1752.
Although Shelley referred to Franklin’s experiment, she made no mention of thunder storms as part of the process of bringing the creature to life. A lightning strike inspires Victor Frankenstein to study science, and a lightning storm provides the backdrop for a dramatic encounter between Victor and his creation. Lightning as the “spark of life” seems to be a cinematic excuse for big special effects.
Resurrecting the dead
Mary Shelley was not the first person to have the idea of bringing dead people back to life using electricity. Serious men of science had investigated the possibility.
It was well known that electric shocks could make muscles twitch – an effect that was named galvanism. Thousands of electrical experiments were conducted on animals but Giovanni Aldini took the next step. He wanted to see if electricity could be used to revive those who had recently died as a result of drowning or suffocation. To test his theories Aldini needed a very fresh corpse. One became available in 1803 in London.
George Forster had been convicted of the murder. His punishment was to be hanged and then his dead body would be handed over to Aldini for his electrical experiments. Forster’s dead body was cut down from the scaffold and delivered to Aldini who connected wires from a battery to the side of Forster’s head. The muscles of the face moved, the jaw quivered and the left eye opened.
Aldini opened Forster’s chest, cracked the ribs and gave electric shocks directly to the heart in an attempt to restart it. He was unsuccessful. Although his resuscitation attempts failed he might have succeeded in inspiring one of the most famous scenes of science fiction. Aldini’s experiments on Forster were widely publicised. The descriptions of the experiment are remarkably similar to images described in Frankenstein at the vital moment when the creature is brought to life.
Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup is out now (£16.99, Bloomsbury)