By JoEllen McBride, PhD
Which came first, science or science fiction? Today it is difficult to tell which has a greater influence on the other. But before the invention of the battery, scientists relied on uncontrollable static discharges to produce electricity and used only the facts in front of them to come up with new scientific ideas. The events surrounding the creation of a chemically produced source of electricity not only transformed the fields of chemistry, physics and biology; they ushered in a new genre of literature known as science fiction– providing a new way to motivate scientists and scientific advances.
The tale begins as any good sci-fi story does. In 1780, the effects of static electricity on living creatures intrigued the Italian scientist, Luigi Galvani. In order to create a static charge he had to rub frog skin together. Once a charge built up, he would apply it to the skinless frogs and record the results. One day while skinning frogs, he inadvertently charged a metal scalpel lying close to where he worked. When he touched the now electrically charged scalpel to the sciatic nerve of a dead frog, the frog’s leg kicked! This reanimation led Galvani to postulate that motion in living things is controlled by electricity that flows from the nerves to the muscles.
Galvani’s frenemy, the physicist Alessandro Volta, had a different hypothesis. Volta knew that Galvani would hang his frogs up by different types of metal wires. He speculated that the different metallic properties of the wires combined with the moist environment of the frog’s muscles transmitted the electricity from the scalpel into the muscles, causing the leg to move. He verified his hypothesis by replacing a frog leg with cloth soaked in brine and recorded an electric current through the attached wires. Volta believed he had disproved ‘galvanism’ and spent much of his life debating its merits with Galvani. Today we have an entire field of physiology known as electrophysiology. So while Galvani may not have discovered ‘animal electricity’ when he reanimated his frog leg, his hypothesis was not far from the truth.
When Volta wasn’t bashing galvanism, he spent his time tweaking his frog leg circuit to produce electricity without friction. For as long as they could remember, scientists had to spend time and energy generating static electricity and storing it in Leyden jars— glass jars with metal foil lining their inner and outer surfaces. The size of the jar limited the amount of electricity stored and the electrical output could not be controlled. Around 1800, Volta discovered that if he interleaved enough zinc, copper and brine soaked cloth he could produce a steady and usable amount of electricity without the need of friction or jars. Volta’s invention provided an independent and controllable electric source and many scientists rushed to replicate his results.
In 1808, two British scientists, William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle, were constructing their own voltaic pile and needed a way to measure the electricity produced. They tried to connect their electroscope to the battery but did not have a reliable connection. They decided to use water as an intermediary between the electroscope contacts and the battery. But when they hooked up the circuit, the water would instantly vanish!
Being scientists, they knew this wasn’t witchcraft. After a few tests they confirmed that the water was not disappearing but being decomposed into oxygen and hydrogen. They had discovered electrolysis. Many scientists, most notably Sir Humphrey Davy, would go on to decompose other molecules and discover new elements such as potassium, sodium, calcium and magnesium. Davy would eventually hire Michael Faraday as his apprentice. Faraday would soon transform the fields of electrostatics and magnetism from his studies of electricity.
People in intellectual circles were aware of the fascinating scientific findings of Galvani, Volta, Nicholson, Carlisle and Davy. Born around the time that Volta made his first battery, Mary Shelley spent her entire life in the company of intellectuals. She hungered for knowledge at a young age and eventually became a prolific writer. She very likely read Davy’s book Elements of Chemical Philosophy, published in 1812, as her husband owned a copy and they enjoyed studying together.
While on holiday with her husband during the summer of 1816, their friend Lord Byron proposed that they all write their own ghost stories. Shelley grew anxious as nights passed and she still could not come up with a story. A few nights later, the group discussion turned to what gives beings life. Shelley suggested that electricity could be used to reanimate a corpse since ‘galvanism’ had been shown to give dead creatures motion. That very night, unable to sleep, her mind focused on reanimation and subconsciously fueled by her own scientific knowledge, it’s no wonder her ‘waking dream’ included visions of a monster brought to life by science.
In her telling, Dr. Frankenstein did not use electricity to animate his monster. That interpretation would first appear in the 1931 film and every telling after. But the influences of galvanism are clear. Unfortunately for all the Dr. Frankensteins and Frankenweenies out there, electrophysiology tells us that electrical signals are detected in cells, muscles and organs throughout a living body. This means it would be impossible to reanimate a dead creature with a jolt of electricity.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein created a new genre of storytelling. Science fiction authors are motivated by recent scientific findings to explore further applications and possibilities. Science fiction stories, in turn, have influenced many young people to pursue careers in scientific fields. So this Halloween when you’re watching Frankenstein or playing Captain Kirk as you ask your phone what the weather will be like for trick or treating; remember it’s all possible because an Italian scientist accidentally electrocuted some frog legs.