How Real-Life Science Inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851)
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published 200 years ago this year, is often called the first modern work of science fiction. It's also become a fixture of pop culture—so much so that even people who haven't read it know (or think they know) the story: An ambitious young scientist named Victor Frankenstein creates a grotesque but vaguely human creature from the spare parts of corpses, but he loses control of his creation, and chaos ensues. It's a wildly inventive tale, one that flowed from an exceptional young woman's imagination and, at the same time, reflected the anxieties over new ideas and new scientific knowledge that were about to transform the very fabric of life in the 19th century.

The woman we remember as Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (who tragically died shortly after Mary's birth). Hers was a hyper-literate household attuned to the latest scientific quests, and her parents (Godwin soon remarried) hosted many intellectual visitors. One was a scientist and inventor named William Nicholson, who wrote extensively on chemistry and on the scientific method. Another was the polymath Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles.

At just 16 years old, Mary ran off with poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was married at the time. A Cambridge graduate, Percy was a keen amateur scientist who studied the properties of gases and the chemical make-up of food. He was especially interested in electricity, even performing an experiment reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin's famous kite test.

The genesis of Frankenstein can be traced back to 1816, when the couple spent the summer at a country house on Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. Lord Byron, the famous poet, was in a villa nearby, accompanied by a young doctor friend, John Polidori. The weather was miserable that summer. (We now know the cause: In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, spewing dust and smoke into the air which then circulated around the world, blotting out the Sun for weeks on end, and triggering widespread crop failure; 1816 became known as the "year without a summer.")

Mary and her companions—including her infant son, William, and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont—were forced to spend their time indoors, huddled around the fireplace, reading and telling stories. As storm after storm raged outside, Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story. A few of them tried; today, Mary's story is the one we remember.

THE SCIENCE THAT INSPIRED SHELLEY

lithograph for the 1823 production of the play Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein
A lithograph for the 1823 production of the play Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, inspired by Shelley's novel.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Frankenstein is, of course, a work of fiction, but a good deal of real-life science informed Shelley's masterpiece, beginning with the adventure story that frames Victor Frankenstein's tale: that of Captain Walton's voyage to the Arctic. Walton hopes to reach the North Pole (a goal that no one would achieve in real life for almost another century) where he might "discover the wondrous power that attracts the needle"—referring to the then-mysterious force of magnetism. The magnetic compass was a vital tool for navigation, and it was understood that the Earth itself somehow functioned like a magnet; however, no one could say how and why compasses worked, and why the magnetic poles differed from the geographical poles.

It's not surprising that Shelley would have incorporated this quest into her story. "The links between electricity and magnetism was a major subject of investigation during Mary's lifetime, and a number of expeditions departed for the North and South Poles in the hopes of discovering the secrets of the planet's magnetic field," writes Nicole Herbots in the 2017 book Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds

Victor recounts to Walton that, as a student at the University of Ingolstadt (which still exists), he was drawn to chemistry, but one of his instructors, the worldly and affable Professor Waldman, encouraged him to leave no branch of science unexplored. Today scientists are highly specialized, but a scientist in Shelley's time might have a broad scope. Waldman advises Victor: "A man would make but a very sorry chemist if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science, and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics."

But the topic that most commands Victor's attention is the nature of life itself: "the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?" It is a problem that science is on the brink of solving, Victor says, "if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries."

In the era that Shelley wrote these words, the subject of what, exactly, differentiates living things from inanimate matter was the focus of impassioned debate. John Abernethy, a professor at London's Royal College of Surgeons, argued for a materialist account of life, while his pupil, William Lawrence, was a proponent of "vitalism," a kind of life force, an "invisible substance, analogous to on the one hand to the soul and on the other to electricity."

Another key thinker, the chemist Sir Humphry Davy, proposed just such a life force, which he imagined as a chemical force similar to heat or electricity. Davy's public lectures at the Royal Institution in London were a popular entertainment, and the young Shelley attended these lectures with her father. Davy remained influential: in October 1816, when she was writing Frankenstein almost daily, Shelley noted in her diary that she was simultaneously reading Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy.

Davy also believed in the power of science to improve the human condition—a power that had only just been tapped. Victor Frankenstein echoes these sentiments: Scientists "have indeed performed miracles," he says. "They penetrate into the recesses of Nature, and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited Powers …"

Victor pledges to probe even further, to discover new knowledge: "I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown Powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of Creation."

FROM EVOLUTION TO ELECTRICITY

Closely related to the problem of life was the question of "spontaneous generation," the (alleged) sudden appearance of life from non-living matter. Erasumus Darwin was a key figure in the study of spontaneous generation. He, like his grandson Charles, wrote about evolution, suggesting that all life descended from a single origin.

Erasmus Darwin is the only real-life scientist to be mentioned by name in the introduction to Shelley's novel. There, she claims that Darwin "preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with a voluntary motion." She adds: "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 endured with vital warmth." (Scholars note that "vermicelli" could be a misreading of Vorticellae—microscopic aquatic organisms that Darwin is known to have worked with; he wasn't bringing Italian pasta to life.)

Victor pursues his quest for the spark of life with unrelenting zeal. First he "became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body." He eventually succeeds "in discovering the cause of the generation of life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter."

page from original draft of Frankenstein
A page from the original draft of Frankenstein.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To her credit, Shelley does not attempt to explain what the secret is—better to leave it to the reader's imagination—but it is clear that it involves the still-new science of electricity; it is this, above all, which entices Victor.

In Shelley's time, scientists were just beginning to learn how to store and make use of electrical energy. In Italy, in 1799, Allesandro Volta had developed the "electric pile," an early kind of battery. A little earlier, in the 1780s, his countryman Luigi Galvani claimed to have discovered a new form of electricity, based on his experiments with animals (hence the term "galvanism" mentioned above). Famously, Galvani was able to make a dead frog's leg twitch by passing an electrical current through it.

And then there's Giovanni Aldini—a nephew of Galvani—who experimented with the body of a hanged criminal, in London, in 1803. (This was long before people routinely donated their bodies to science, so deceased criminals were a prime source of research.) In Shelley's novel, Victor goes one step further, sneaking into cemeteries to experiment on corpses: "… a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life … Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses."

Electrical experimentation wasn't just for the dead; in London, electrical "therapies" were all the rage—people with various ailments sought them out, and some were allegedly cured. So the idea that the dead might come back to life through some sort of electrical manipulation struck many people as plausible, or at least worthy of scientific investigation.

One more scientific figure deserves a mention: a now nearly forgotten German physiologist named Johann Wilhelm Ritter. Like Volta and Galvani, Ritter worked with electricity and experimented with batteries; he also studied optics and deduced the existence of ultraviolet radiation. Davy followed Ritter's work with interest. But just as Ritter was making a name for himself, something snapped. He grew distant from his friends and family; his students left him. In the end he appears to have had a mental breakdown. In The Age of Wonder, author Richard Holmes writes that this now-obscure German may have been the model for the passionate, obsessive Victor Frankenstein.

A CAUTIONARY TALE ABOUT HUMAN NATURE, NOT SCIENCE

Plate from 1922 edition of Frankenstein
A Plate from 1922 edition of Frankenstein.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In time, Victor Frankenstein came to be seen as the quintessential mad scientist, the first example of what would become a common Hollywood trope. Victor is so absorbed by his laboratory travails that he failed to see the repercussions of his work; when he realizes what he has unleashed on the world, he is overcome with remorse.

And yet scholars who study Shelley don't interpret this remorse as evidence of Shelley's feelings about science as a whole. As the editors of Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds write, "Frankenstein is unequivocally not an antiscience screed."

We should remember that the creature in Shelley's novel is at first a gentle, amicable being who enjoyed reading Paradise Lost and philosophizing on his place in the cosmos. It is the ill-treatment he receives at the hands of his fellow citizens that changes his disposition. At every turn, they recoil from him in horror; he is forced to live the life of an outcast. It is only then, in response to cruelty, that his killing spree begins.

"Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded," the creature laments to his creator, Victor. "I was benevolent and good—misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

But Victor does not act to ease the creature's suffering. Though he briefly returns to his laboratory to build a female companion for the creature, he soon changes his mind and destroys this second being, fearing that "a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth." He vows to hunt and kill his creation, pursuing the creature "until he or I shall perish in mortal conflict."

Victor Frankenstein's failing, one might argue, wasn't his over-zealousness for science, or his desire to "play God." Rather, he falters in failing to empathize with the creature he created. The problem is not in Victor's head but in his heart.

Watch a Gulper Eel Inflate Like a Terrifying Balloon

OET, NautilusLive.org
OET, NautilusLive.org

Since launching in 2008, the Ocean Exploration Trust's Nautilus research vessel has live-streamed a purple orb, a transparent squid, and a stubby octopus from the bottom of the ocean. The latest bizarre example of marine life captured by the vessel is a rare gulper eel that acts like a cross between a python and a pufferfish.

As Thrillist reports, this footage was shot by a Nautilus rover roaming the Pacific Ocean's Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument 4700 feet below the surface. In it, a limbless, slithery, black creature that looks like it swallowed a beach ball can be seen hovering above the sea floor. After about a minute, the eel deflates its throat, swims around for a bit, and unhinges its jaw to reveal a gaping mouth.

The reaction of the scientists onboard the ship is just as entertaining as the show the animal puts on. At first they're not sure what they're looking at ("It looks like a Muppet" someone says), and after being blown away by its shape-shifting skills, they conclude that it's a gulper eel. Gulper eels are named for their impressive jaw span, which allows them to swallow prey much larger than themselves and puff up to intimidate predators. Because they like to lurk at least 1500 feet beneath the ocean's surface, they're rarely documented.

You can watch the inflated eel and hear the researcher's response to it in the video below.

[h/t Thrillist]

10 Electrifying Facts About Michael Faraday

iStock
iStock

This world-changing genius was born into poverty on September 22, 1791. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday refused to let his background stand in his way.

1. HE WAS LARGELY SELF-EDUCATED.

In Faraday's boyhood home, money was always tight. His father, James, was a sickly blacksmith who struggled to support a wife and four children in one of London's poorer outskirts. At age 13, young Faraday started helping the family make ends meet. Bookseller George Ribeau (sometimes spelled Riebau) took him on as an errand boy in 1804, with the teen's primary job being the delivery and recovery of loaned-out newspapers.

Shortly after Faraday's 14th birthday, Ribeau offered him a free apprenticeship. Over the next seven years, he mastered the trade of bookbinding. After hours, Faraday remained in Ribeau's store, hungrily reading many of the same volumes he'd bound together.

Like most lower-class boys, Faraday's formal schooling was very limited. Between those bookshelves, however, he taught himself a great deal—especially about chemistry, physics, and a mysterious force called "electricity."

2. A 300-PAGE NOTEBOOK LAUNCHED HIS SCIENTIFIC CAREER.


Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0 

Sir Humphry Davy (above) left a huge mark on science. In the year 1808 alone, the man discovered no less than five elements, including calcium and boron. An excellent public speaker, Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution consistently drew huge crowds. 

Twenty-year-old Faraday attended four of these presentations in 1812, having received tickets from a customer. As Davy spoke, Faraday jotted down detailed notes, which he then compiled and bound into a little book. Faraday sent his 300-page transcript to Davy. Duly impressed, the seasoned scientist eventually hired him as a lab assistant. Later in life, Davy was asked to name the greatest discovery he'd ever made. His answer: "Michael Faraday."

Tension would nevertheless erupt between mentor and protégé. As Faraday's accomplishments began to eclipse his own, Davy accused the younger man of plagiarizing another scientist's work (this rumor was swiftly discredited) and tried to block his admission to the Royal Society.

3. IF IT WEREN'T FOR FARADAY, WE MIGHT NOT HAVE ELECTRIC POWER.

On September 3, 1821, Faraday built a device that ushered technology into the modern era. One year earlier, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted had demonstrated that when an electric current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is created around it. Faraday capitalized on this revelation. Inside the Royal Society basement, he began what was arguably his most groundbreaking experiment by placing a magnet in the bottom of a mercury-filled glass container. Dangling overhead was a wire, which Faraday connected to a battery. Once an electric current was conducted through the wire, it began rotating around the magnet.

Faraday had just built the world's first electric motor. How could he possibly top himself? By building the world's first electric generator. His first experiment was comprised of a simple ring of wires and cotton through which he passed a magnet. By doing so, he found that a current was generated. To this day, most electricity is made using the same principles.

4. FARADAY INVENTED THE RUBBER BALLOON.


iStock

By today's standards, his early models would look shabby. Made via pressing two sheets of rubber together, Faraday's balloons were used to contain hydrogen during his experiments. Faraday created his first in 1824 and was quick to praise the bag's “considerable ascending power.” Toy manufacturers started distributing these the following year.

5. HE'S ALSO THE GRANDFATHER OF MODERN REFRIGERATORS.

In 1823, Faraday sealed a sample of chlorine hydrate inside a V-shaped tube. As he heated one end and cooled the other simultaneously, the scientist noticed that a peculiar yellow liquid was starting to form. Curious, he broke open the tube. Without warning, a sudden, violent explosion sent glass shards flying everywhere. Mercifully uninjured, he smelled a strong scent of chlorine in the air.

It didn't take him very long to figure out what had happened. Inside the tube, pressure was building, which liquefied the gas. Upon puncturing the glass, he'd released this pressure and, afterwards, the liquid reverted into its gaseous state. This sudden evaporation came with an interesting side-effect: it cooled down the surrounding air. Quite unintentionally, Faraday thus set the stage for the very first ice-making machines and refrigeration units.

6. HE BECAME AN ANTI-POLLUTION CRUSADER.

Britain's industrialization came at a malodorous price. As London grew more crowded during the mid-1800s, garbage and fecal matter were dumped into the River Thames with increasing regularity. Naturally, the area didn't smell like a rose. In 1855, Faraday penned an oft-reproduced open letter about the problem, imploring the authorities to take action. “If we neglect this subject,” he wrote, “we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof for the folly of our carelessness.”

Just as Faraday predicted, a broiling summer forced Londoners of all stripes to hold their noses. Dubbed “the Great Stink,” the warmer months of 1858 sent the Thames' rancid odor wafting all over the city. Parliament hastily responded with a comprehensive sewage reform bill. Gradually, the putrid stench began to dissipate.

7. HE STARTED THE ROYAL SOCIETY'S CHRISTMAS LECTURE TRADITION.


Alexander Blaikley, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Faraday understood the importance of making science accessible to the public. In 1825, while employed by the Royal Society, he spearheaded an annual series that's still going strong today. That holiday season, engineer John Millington delivered a set of layman-friendly lectures on “natural philosophy.” Every year thereafter (excluding 1939–1942 because of WWII), a prominent scientist has been invited to follow in his footsteps. Well-known Christmas lecturers include David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Richard Dawkins (1991). Faraday himself was the presenter on no less than 19 occasions.

8. BRILLIANT AS FARADAY WAS, HE STRUGGLED WITH MATH.

Towards the end of his life, Faraday's lack of formal education finally caught up with him. An underprivileged childhood had rendered him mathematically illiterate, a severe handicap for a professional scientist. In 1846, he hypothesized that light itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon, but because Faraday couldn't support the notion with mathematics, it wasn't taken seriously. Salvation for him came in the form of a young physicist named James Clerk Maxwell. Familial wealth had enabled Maxwell to pursue math and—in 1864—he released equations [PDF] that helped prove Faraday's hunch.

9. AS TIME WORE ON, HE STRUGGLED WITH MEMORY LOSS.

Michael Faraday
iStock

At the age of 48, Faraday's once-sharp memory started faltering. Stricken by an illness that rendered him unable to work for three years, he wrestled with vertigo, unsteadiness, and other symptoms. Following this "extended vacation" [PDF], he returned to the Royal Society, where he experimented away until his early 70s.

However, Faraday was still prone to inexplicable spurts of sudden giddiness, depression, and extreme forgetfulness. “[My] bad memory,” he wrote, “both loses recent things and sometimes suggests old ones as new.” Nobody knows what caused this affliction, though some blame it on overexposure to mercury.

10. EINSTEIN KEPT A PORTRAIT OF FARADAY IN HIS BERLIN HOME.

Fittingly, the father of modern physics regarded Faraday as a personal hero. Once, upon receiving a book about him, Einstein remarked, “This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved.”

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