How Dr. Frankenstein created a monster
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, is considered to be one of the first science fiction novels ever written.
The book is about a man called Dr. Victor Frankenstein who tries to create life. In the subtitle of the book he is called The Modern Prometheus, named after the Titan Prometheus from Greek mythology who created mankind using clay.
In the novel, Dr. Frankenstein narrates the tale of how he created a monster from an inanimate body he constructed. He conveniently leaves out the details about his experiments in fear that someone will try to recreate his horrid experiment.
Illustration of Frankenstein’s monster from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. Illustration by Theodore von Holst.
If you ever wondered how Dr. Frankenstein did it, here’s how – but first, it is important to know why Mary Shelley wrote the book.
Supposedly, Mary Shelley and her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley spent the summer of 1816 at Lord Byron’s villa at Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Both Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron were famous Romantic poets.
The weather was really bad for that time of the year. 1816 is also known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’ – so the group had to stay inside for most of the time.
To pass time, they read German ghost stories and talked about recent scientific developments. This caused Lord Byron to propose a wager of who could write the best ghost story.
Lord Byron wrote a story about vampires (and back in the day, they did not sparkle!), which would eventually lead to the creation of the modern vampire genre. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.
Shelley was heavily influenced by scientific developments of the time.
In the early 19th century, science had nothing to do with the Higgs boson or Mars rovers – it was all about galvanism and the possibility of bringing corpses back to life.
In 1790, 26 years before Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein, Italian physicist Luigi Galvani was conducting experiments with frog legs.
By accident, he touched one of the legs with a scalpel, causing a current to flow through the leg – making it jerk as if it were alive. Dubbed animal electricity by Galvani, this process would later be referred to as galvanism.
Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini was inspired by his uncle’s work, so he attempted to re-animate a corpse. His intentions were pure; he had hoped it would provide relief to fishermen, sailors or miners, who could drown, suffocate or suffer from other accidents.
Cartoon of a galvanised corpse from 1836. Illustration by Henry Robinson.
In total, he did fifteen experiments using galvanism on the body of a hanged criminal in 1803.
Although the body never came back to life, Aldini claimed after his fourth experiment that the effect ‘surpassed our most sanguine expectations, and vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not rendered it impossible’.
Mary Shelley put it in a more Romantic way: ‘Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things; perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth’.
It is not hard to understand that people were fascinated with these experiments in the early 1800s, nor that they were used as inspiration to write a horror story.
Although Dr. Frankenstein never revealed his secrets about how he created a monster, at least now you know how he did it.