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Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

Galvanism

During the 1790s, Italian physician Luigi Galvani demonstrated what we now understand to be the electrical basis of nerve impulses when he made frog muscles twitch by jolting them with a spark from an electrostatic machine. When Frankenstein was published, however, the word galvanism implied the release, through electricity, of mysterious life forces. "Perhaps," Mary Shelley recalled of her talks with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, "a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things."

Illustration of Italian physician Luigi Galvani's experiments, in which he applied electricity to frogs legs; from his book De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari (1792). NLM Unique ID: 2671309R. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine Collection.

Illustration of Italian physician Luigi Galvani's experiments, in which he applied electricity to frogs legs; from his book De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari (1792).

A Galvanized Corpse by H.R. Robinson, 1836. Jacksonian editor Francis Preston Blair rises from his coffin, revived by a primitive galvanic battery, as two demons look on. A man on the right throws up his hands as he is drawn toward Blair, saying: Had I not been born insensible to fear, now should I be most horribly afraid. Hence! horrible shadow! unreal mockery. Hence! And yet it stays: can it be real. How it grows! How malignity and venom are 'blended in cadaverous union' in its countenance! It must surely be a 'galvanized corpse.' But what do I feel? The thing begins to draw me . . . I can't withstand it. I shall hug it! Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-11916.

Electricity's seeming ability to stir the dead to life gave the word galvanize its own special flavoring, as this 1836 political cartoon of a "galvanized" corpse suggests.