Frankenstein, now 200 years old, shows its roots

Mary Shelley published her novel “Frankenstein” in 1818. Since then, the fantastic tale has been retold many times with many variations. But the story always has a pivotal laboratory scene.

That’s when Dr. Frankenstein obsessively contorts through a maze of glass, cables, wheels, globes, and arcing lightning. We never understand how it’s all networked together to reanimate death, but – clearly – he does.

The science is grandiose, sublime, theatrical.

Dean Howarth, a high school science teacher from Virginia with a passion for historical enactment, came to the Science History Institute Tuesday evening to perform a period lecture in the character of a physicist from the 18th century when electricity was new and not entirely understood.

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It was embraced by both scientific seekers and quacks.

“When electricity came along, it was new and wonderful,” he said. “In all honesty, medicine was dragging its feet in terms of other discoveries in science. It was time medicine caught up.”

Shelley and her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, were known to frequent scientific lectures. These were public events demonstrating new thinking in any number of fields, from electricity to chemistry to philosophy. Leading scientists of the day — including Humphry Davy and Andrew Crosse — would keep the public up to date with presentations that were as informative as they were entertaining.

“They were showmen,” said Howarth. “If you blew something up, and it rattled the windows, people got their money’s worth.”

In Howarth’s lecture, he plays a character that is an amalgam of many historical scientists, most particularly Giovanni Aldini, who attempted to reanimate the dead.

Aldini was a galvanist, a field of science that applied electrical current to stimulate muscles. He experimented on the corpses of recently executed prisoners.

“He struck deals with local magistrates to have newly dispatched criminals brought to his laboratory and applied electrical stimulus to their nerves,” said Howarth. “Their eyes would open and their limbs would move. Put two and two together, it’s how Dr. Frankenstein brought his creature to life.”

In his public demonstrations, Aldini was known to line up the decapitated heads of cadavers, wire them in series, and use voltage to contort their faces into grotesque expressions. Women, for fear of their nerves, were often not allowed to attend.

“What’s cool about Mary Shelley’s story — and what makes it so modern — is that she had her finger on the pulse of what was going on,” Howarth said. “She could have had Victor Frankenstein do a witch’s incantation to bring the corpse to life. But no, she uses a voltaic pile and a galvanic engine.”

“Frankenstein” is often interpreted as a cautionary tale about science overreaching itself, technology gone wrong. Howarth’s lecture suggests it’s a story about parenting gone wrong, about neglecting the thing you have made.

Doing the science to make the thing is actually kind of cool.

“If you want a story about science that overreaches itself, go see ‘Godzilla,’” said Howarth. “This is a book about humanity with flavors of science. People read ‘Frankenstein’ and say ‘science is bad.’ No it’s not. As a science teacher, I think it’s a poignant story.”

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