A short history of bioelectricity

No, really. And yes, I am absolutely posting this after my blog on Liz Hurley, because that’s just how I roll.

Last night, I was lucky enough to catch the magnificent Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Four, in Part One his programme ‘Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity’. When I saw the title, I yawned into my sleeve. ‘Boring!’ I sighed to myself, and reached for the remote for something a bit sillier. The traumatic flashbacks to Physics lessons had begun to kick in, I’d had a long day, and I just wanted to shut my brain down.

Oh, but hang on a minute.

A darkened cellar? Candlelight? Dramatic, swooping music? The awed, yet still reassuring tones of Professor Jim? I stopped, remote still lodged in hand. A quick shot of Prof Al-Khalili clad entirely in chain mail, and the promise of a leap back to the 18th Century, and I was totally sold. The remote was shoved firmly to the side, and I turned on, tuned in, and had my mind blown.

All that said, this is not a review of the TV show. I’ll just say, watch it yourself, because it is spectacular. I’m going to talk, instead, about what grabbed me most: the works of Luigi Galvani and his nephew, Giovanni Aldini.

In the first year of my English Degree (come on, it’s got to be useful for SOMETHING), I developed an utter fascination with Frankenstein, to the extent that I even made my poor boyfriend of the time watch Kenneth Branagh’s epic production, which lasted at least three weeks, and cast ol’ Kenny in the role of a misunderstood but still maverick genius, Victor Frankenstein. That man has a serious hero complex – I dread the day that he decides to play Hitler, as it’ll be all floppy fringe, chinless heroism and grand gestures.

Where was I? Yes, literature. Anyway, I’d obviously heard the term ‘galvanism’ bandied around a lot, and being the conscientious student like wot I was, I never actually bothered to look it up. Nope, not even on Wikipedia. Well, thanks again, Jim Al-Khalili (sorry, I just like typing that. Say it out loud, it’s rather fun.) Where Volta was more pragmatic, eventually creating an early battery, Galvani thought electricity to be linked with biology, thinking instead that electrical impulses came from the movements of the muscle. I’ll skim over the part about him wanting to create a 12 foot ‘super frog’ by making various frogs eat each other, and go straight to the less insane stuff.


Galvani conducted experiments on the legs of dead frogs, thinking intrinsic electricity in the frog was causing a charge, making the leg move. Volta and Galvani went head to head, each thinking the other completely wrong. Here’s where I got really interested. Because as anyone who has read Frankenstein will know, Victor’s early experiments and scientific findings follow much the same route. I find the ‘birth’ of the monster utterly chilling, no matter how many times I read it, or how many awful adaptations I see (not you, National Theatre/Benedict Cumberbatch, you were ace.)

So, Aldini, nephew to Galvani, had edited his theories on animal electricity, and took the research further. Instead of little frogs, he conducted experiments in public on the body of a dead criminal, freshly cut down from the gallows. He applied electrical currents to the dead body, which made the body sit upright and twist around, making the body seem alive. You may remember that at Ingolstadt, Victor explores much of the same. Mary Shelley read the writings of Aldini prior to writing Frankenstein, and I find it all the more frightful for that.  I’m disgusted in myself for not knowing about these genuine experiments that formed a framework to the book.


Anyway, a bit of a change of pace, but I really cannot recommend the programme enough. I’ll certainly be picking up Frankenstein again, and reading more about galvanism and the terrifying figure of Aldini.

A nice picture of Kenny B

Watch Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00kjq6h/Shock_and_Awe_The_Story_of_Electricity_Spark/

(Pictures courtesy of the one, the only, Google Images)

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