Exploring the History of Electricity: Galvani and Mary Shelley

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Sometimes it really pays to open your mouth. I got to reap the rewards of such an action today and it was truly spectacular.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine gave a talk at Linda Hall Library about science and technology in Star Trek in honor of the franchise’s 50th anniversary. This was part of the library’s Second Saturdays Conversation series. I went to provide moral support even though I don’t have any knowledge about Star Trek. Then, it came time for Q&A and the Q portion was getting a little off track. So, I decided to help out in spite of my ignorance of the topic at hand. I opened my mouth and asked about what science in particular inspires my friend and his writing partner, citing Mary Shelley and the inspiration she found in Galvani’s experiments with frog legs.

After the lecture was over, a representative from the library approached me and handed me his card. He told me that he knew the exact book I was talking about, that they have a copy of it in their collections and if I ever want to come see it, he’d be happy to show it to me, among others. That was Dr. Ben Gross, the Associate Vice President for Collections at Linda Hall Library. I was flabbergasted! An invitation to tour a special collection and to see these books up close. There was no way I was going to miss that opportunity! My little writer/reader/old-book-loving heart was overjoyed!

Today I got to make my special visit to the library. Ben himself, along with Cindy Rogers the Assistant Librarian for the History of Science, took me and a friend on a very personal tour of the electrical experimentation collection of books. Ben and Cindy told us amazing stories and we got to get up close and personal with books published in the 1700s and 1800s. Both of them really know their stuff too. Ben’s knowledge was totally on point and Cindy asked some really great questions so we got to learn even more. I learned about subtle fluids, paper trends in book publishing, trends in electrical experimentation and more. I even got to touch one or two of the books and was allowed to take as many photos as I liked. The people at Linda Hall are really great and they shared so much more with us than I can fit into an acceptable length of time.

Anyway, back to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein (published in 1818). Shelley was in part inspired to write Frankenstein because of an important “natural philosopher” named Galvani. Don’t know the story/history of Shelley or Galvani? Here’s a really quick overview. Basically, in the early 1800s, Luigi Galvani famously applied an electric shock to a pair of frog legs and was surprised to discover that the legs moved when he did this. This itself inspired a whole series of experiments, studies performed by natural philosophers and debated by colleagues.

The books Ben showed us today were focused on electric experimentation. We got a thorough history of electric science leading up to Galvani and then the story about Galvani and his nephew and their book itself! The books we saw detailed the experiments performed by people like Galvani, Martin van Marum, F Hauksbee, Alessandro Volta and Benjamin Franklin.

I even learned where the Chevy Volt got it’s name..and where the word voltage came from! Alessandro Volta was the person who inadvertently first created a battery using a stack of metal discs and salt water! I’ve never really thought about the discovery of a battery and what it meant for society before today.

The creme de la creme of the books I was out to see was last. It features a series of animal electricity experiments performed by Giovanni Aldani which were inspired by or came from his uncle Luigi Galvani. Aldini traveled around Europe sharing the work of his uncle, specifically against the attacks of one Alessandro Volta. He even went to England and did a number of public talks/lectures with Galvanic equipment. During his talks, Aldini would use Volta’s bimetallic pile (think battery) to apply an electric current to animal bodies and heads…and even on  human remains too.  The photos you can see in the slide show below of different animals such as the cow depict experiments that he would do. According to our tour guide Ben, when Aldini electrified the cow’s head, the eyes would twitch or the tongue would flop. Aldini’s tours occurred from 1800-1805. The experimental phase of animal electricity extended into the 1820s, Ben told us.

In 1816, a time during which one of these phases when electrical experimentation was common, that a group of friends (Mary Shelley, Polidori, Wordsworth and Percy Shelley) decided to go to Switzerland. Mary Shelley got her inspiration in part from these experiments. She and the other writers were talking about the “spark of life” and Erasmus Darwin, etc. and that very night Mary Shelley couldn’t sleep. She got out of bed the next morning  and began work on her idea that would become Frankenstein. Pretty cool, huh?

And today, on the actual 200th anniversary of this momentous event (I’m not sure how that happened. It was totally unplanned. The universe is wild, friends), I myself got to see  all of these books.

There are many more books that can be found at the wonderful Linda Hall Library. And you can go see them too! They want people to experience their collections. I’ve never experienced such an open invitation before and to touch something that is so old and so well preserved. This is a very unique opportunity. Most libraries keep their books locked away—and believe me, Linda Hall has a vault—but they want to share their collections with you, unlike those other libraries.

This whole experience was amazing on so many levels. A history lesson, a science lesson, a literature lesson. And a lesson on how all of these things in life sort of weave together and inspire you in the Mary Shelley story. It’s really true that to be a writer, you also have to be a reader and you have to go out and experience life. Otherwise, you have nothing to write about! I’ve expanded my awareness in a variety of directions today because of this.

Thank you so much to Ben, Cindy and the other people of Linda Hall Library for inviting me to the library, giving me a great history/science/literature lesson and for showing me these amazing books! And seriously, if you are in Kansas City, check out Linda Hall Library!



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