Unless you’ve been living under a rock for your whole life (sorry about that), there’s a high chance that you would have heard of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Heck, it might even be your favorite book! Whether you read it for fun or whether you were begrudgingly forced to do so at school or college, or even if you’ve simply watched the movie, you’ll know that it’s one of the most iconic stories of all time. Despite the fact that it was published 200 years ago, Frankenstein is still causing a stir in modern-day life and science. But how did real-life science inspire Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?
Her early life
Unlike most of us who grew up in front of the television and South Park episodes, Mary Shelley was brought up in a highly intellectual household where it was commonplace to invite some of the greatest minds of the day around for dinner. Mary’s parents would often invite academics and scientists such as William Nicholson and Erasmus Darwin (yep, Charles’s grandfather) to engage in smart conversations and debates – which meant that Mary was constantly bombarded with scientific food for thought.
As if that wasn’t enough, Mary decided to then run away when she was just 16 years old to marry the esteemed poet and writer, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Because being a writer just wasn’t enough for him, Percy was also a wannabe scientist and would often try to concoct his own chemicals and create electricity. See where we’re going with this?
As she continued to surround herself with science and philosophical debate, Mary Shelley found herself asking herself the same question scientists around the world were asking themselves – what is electricity? Well, one man who was investigating this concept with all of his might was Luigi Galvani, who was a surgeon at the University of Bologna. By this point, scientists had managed to create basic electricity using spinning machines, but Galvani decided to take things one step further and see how electricity affected animals.
During these investigations, Galvani noticed that when he inflicted electricity on a frog and used metal rods to hold it up, its legs would twitch and convulse as if it had revived from the dead. As he conducted even more experiments, he believed that this ‘animal electricity’ had come from the frog itself.
Running in the family
As the years went by, Galvani’s nephew took on his uncles ideas and used them to tour the country, creating gruesome shows in the process. During this time, he would take corpses to laboratories and theaters to put on a show. As he jolted these dead bodies with electricity, they would often convulse at the touch, and would sometimes sit upright, as if they had been woken from the dead.
At this time, Mary Shelley was aware of Galvani’s exploits, and spent one summer evening in Geneva with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, discussing his experiments. However, their fun and games were interrupted by a thunderstorm and bolts of lightning (which also played a part in her story), so the gang had to make their own fun. They created their own stories – and with Galvani’s experiments in her mind and lightning striking in the background, Frankenstein was born.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is still one of the most impressive stories in the world, but what makes it even more impressive is that the science was not fiction. Instead, real-life science inspired her story that would later grip millions of readers…