From Aldini’s galvanization of human bodies to the Modern Prometheus

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Marco Cambiaghi
André Parent

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Abstract

During the 18th century the perception of electricity was significantly different from was it is today. In particular, the idea of ‘bioelectricity’ - the electrical phenomena that control our body - was trying to surface among a set of multifaceted studies and innovative processes involving electricity. The concept of animal electricity finally emerged at the very end of the 18th century thanks to the work of the Italian physician, physicist and anatomist at the University of Bologna, Luigi Galvani, whose findings were disputed by the physicist Alessandro Volta, from Como. At the beginning of the 19th century, Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of Galvani, attempted to demonstrate the existence of animal electricity by using voltaic batteries to stimulate the corpse of animals and humans, often in front of laypersons. One of these public events occurred in London on January 17, 1803, when Aldini applied electrical stimulation (at that time called Galvanic stimulation) on the corpse of a hanged criminal, ‘almost to give an appearance of re-animation’. The results of such gruesome exhibitions were reported in detail by local newspapers, ingraining the idea that electricity might be the long-sought vital force. The English writer Mary Shelley is likely to have been influenced by such events, which suggest the possibility of reanimating dead bodies by the application of electricity. She ingeniously put this concept into action in her highly influential gothic novel Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus that was first published exactly 200 years ago.

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