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Going with the flow – or the spark of life

Tor’s hammer & lightning

Electricity has always been around. Lightning is a form of electricity – but our ancestors called it magic, and cowered in fear in their recently decorated caves as the skies burst apart with bolts of light. Or they blamed it on God. “Let there be light,” He thundered, and the sky lit up from within.

In the form of lightning, electricity was of little use, however impressive a display of celestial power it might be. Over the centuries, however, man began pondering just what it was that lit up the sky, and if all that power could be harnessed somehow. This is why Benjamin Franklin flew that famous kite of his, attempting to further understand the nature of natural electric flow. His conclusions led to further advancement in the understanding of electricity, but it remained relatively useless. Yes, Franklin proved there was electricity in the sky, yes, he could make it light up a spark or two. No, he couldn’t control it.

At the time, electricity was mainly used as a parlour trick. Some smart person or other had invented a simple generator with a crank – without really understanding the science behind it. You turned the crank, thereby charging a glass globe. Someone blew out the candles, the operator set his hand in contact with the glass globe, and lo and behold, the hand glowed blue!
“Oooo!” squealed the young ladies in the darkened room, excitedly clutching at each other – or throwing come-hither looks at the man doing the cranking.

 Signore Volta
Signore Volta

Based on Franklin’s research, others became interested in electricity. Two of these were Italians. Allow me to introduce in one corner Signore Alessandro Volta, and in the other Signore Luigi Galvani. These two gentlemen rarely saw eye to eye – in fact, they were in constant competition with one another. Volta was a professor at the University of Pavia, Galvani at Bologna. (I must admit to a predilection for Bologna, that red city that bustles with industry and has the best ravioli in the world, but that is neither here nor there)

Signore Galvani

Galvani was the proponent of “animal electricity” (or bioelectricity) as being something totally distinct from “electricity”. Volta was of the opinion that electricity was electricity, full stop. The two gentlemen went through a number of experiments (and frogs) to prove their points. Volta hectored, Galvani sneered and rebutted, and in general their audiences did not know what to think. Until Volta discovered the electrical cell.
“Discovered?” you may ask. Well, what Volta did was study animals that could produce “animal electricity” (such as a stingray, for example) and succeeded in isolating the cells that generated the burst of electricity. Being not only trained in physics but also in chemistry (this is the dude who discovered methane – based on the observations of that ever curious Benjamin Franklin), in 1800 Volta succeeded in replicating the structure of the cells he’d been studying and built the first “voltaic piles”. Taa-daa!!! Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the first ever battery, a major breakthrough in the study of electricity. Suddenly, man could produce electrical power – albeit quite uncontrolled, but still.

These first time batteries were like giant layer cakes, with layers of copper, zink and paper drenched in acid. To produce measurable electricity, a number of voltaic piles were required, and one can imagine all that acid hissing and steaming, filling the room with fumes one should probably not inhale.

Obviously, this discovery sort of killed all Galvani’s future arguments. Besides, he was ailing and in deep mourning ever since his wife had died a decade or so previously. Fortunately for Galvani, he had someone to further the cause of bioelectricity, namely his nephew, the talented scientist and excellent showman, Giovanni Aldini.


Aldini didn’t waste time on arguing with Volta about the potentially different types of electricity. Instead, he set out to use those voltaic piles to do his own experimenting. I guess he started with frogs, upgraded to mice, perhaps a cat or two, but at some point this was not enough. Giovanni needed something more spectacular, and while visiting England in early 1803, an opportunity arose for a really juicy experiment – at the expense of one George Forster.

George was not one of life’s brighter or better specimens. The man had been found guilty of murdering his wife and daughter, and had been sentenced to hanging and dissection. Dissecting executed criminals was a fail-safe way of ensuring they did not rise again on Judgement Day. It was also a horrifying add-on to the execution, as it was not uncommon for the corpse to come very much alive during the dissection – this due to not having been properly dead to begin with. (Yuck!)

Aldini was utterly thrilled at the opportunity offered by George’s planned execution. Coin changed hands, and no sooner was George “hanged by the neck” until dead, but he was transferred over to Aldini’s care. The audience was riveted, gawking at the multiple “voltaic piles” Aldini had put in place, connected one to the other. The corpse was rolled in. Aldini sauntered over and connected poor dead George to the hissing piles. Aldini straightened up, smiled at his captive audience. (Did I mention all of this took place in Newgate?)
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said, throwing his arms wide. (I must admit I have no idea what he said. I wasn’t there. But he strikes me as someone who would have milked this his finest moment) “Today, I will demonstrate the power of electricity. Look here,” he said, sweeping his hand over the inert George. “He is dead, yes? But now…” Aldini plunged a lever. “…he rises again!”

Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel)When the electricity coursed through George, his body began to twitch. His muscles contracted, one of his eyes opened, and some in the shocked audience thought they were witnessing a resurrection. The right hand clenched and unclenched, the legs began to move. Aldini switched things off, George reverted to inertia. But for those who’d just seen his body move, it seemed as if this electricity stuff could indeed offer the spark of life – a magical way of awakening those who had died.

Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley

At the time of Aldini’s experiment, one Mary Godwin was only five years old. Fifteen years later, in 1818, this little girl published a book named Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. It was published anonymously,created quite the furore, and is today considered on of the classics of the horror genre.

Being a self-published author (surprise! many were back then), Mary re-published her book a couple of times, now under her married name, Mary Shelley. In the 1831 edition she also included a “why did I write this book” section which she called her waking dream. As per Mary, “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” Just like George did, when Aldini plunged that lever. So here you have it people, science and art, walking hand in hand to the mutual benefit of both!


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