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Galvanism in Frankenstein

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  • 0:00 What Is Galvanism?
  • 0:24 Who Originated Galvanism?
  • 1:32 Giovanni Aldini
  • 2:20 Galvanism in 'Frankenstein'
  • 3:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

When writing 'Frankenstein,' Mary Shelley was influenced by popular scientific theories of her time, including galvanism. Her own upbringing in a liberally educated household exposed her to not only the idea of galvanism but also predominant theorists in electrical sciences.

What Is Galvanism?

Galvanism is both the action of a muscle contracting after being stimulated by an electrical current and also inducing an electrical current during a chemical reaction. In Frankenstein, the theory is primarily focused on the first definition. It was a popular yet controversial theory in Shelley's time that galvanism could reanimate dead tissue and possibly restore life.

Who Originated Galvanism?

Luigi Galvani was a physician and a professor of anatomy at the University of Bologna in the late eighteenth century. During a routine dissection of frogs' legs, Galvani accidentally introduced a current from his scalpel to the muscle in the dead leg, causing the leg to twitch as if alive. He believed he had discovered a sort of electricity he termed animal electricity. Galvani's research was some of the earliest to note the connection between electrical impulses and life, as well as providing a basis for the understanding in later science that electricity travels through ions and not simply air or liquid as previous theories had stated.

Galvani's research into this so-called animal electricity was checked and replicated by his contemporaries. One of them, Volta (from whom we get the world volt), first supported Galvani's theory of animal electricity, then decided that it was not the dead tissue which retained electricity but rather the dead tissue responding to outside electricity. This caused a rift in the scientific community. Galvani's work remains relevant today, however, and his work with electro-stimulation influenced areas of modern medicine and physical science, as well as the development of modern batteries.

Giovanni Aldini

Giovanni Aldini was Galvani's nephew and a scientist in his own right. Among his many scientific interests, Aldini attempted to prove galvanism was correct and that dead tissue could, indeed, be meaningfully reanimated with animal electricity. His most famous experiment, which may have influenced Shelley's Frankenstein (particularly the passage describing the creature's reanimation) took place at Newgate Prison. He applied electro-stimulation to the freshly executed corpse of George Forster. The deceased grimaced, twitched, raised a hand, clenched his fist, and even appeared to be attempting to walk as Aldini applied currents to different spots on the body. This experiment drew attention to galvanism once more, and it entered into popular scientific and philosophical debate, which Shelley would have been exposed to in the salons her father hosted regularly.

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