Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Lecture 14.  Galvinism

What, exactly, is electricity?  When we look in our Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia, we see that electricity is defined as a "class of physical phenomena resulting from the existence of charge and from the interaction of charges."  What does this mean, in layperson's terms?  It means that whoever wrote the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia is a big fat dope.  Because we know from our junior high school science training that electricity is actually a fast-moving herd of electrons, which are tiny one-celled animals that can survive in almost any environment except inside a double-A battery, where they die within minutes.
--Dave Barry
For centuries, a magnet's ability to attract and repel led a list of many mysterious powers -- warmth, vitality, illumination, cohesion -- possessed by otherwise inanimate matter.  In 1450, Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) proposed an ingenious method for measuring its invisible and intangible power: 

I think that the power of a magnet could be weighed.  Suppose that on one side of a balance-scale a piece of iron were placed at equilibrium with a magnet on the other side and that then the magnet were removed but some other heavy object of equal weight were put in its place.  Suppose the magnet were held above the iron, so that the piece of iron on the balance-scale were moved upward toward the magnet and (since the iron is [thus] moved out of equality) the weight on the other side became heavier [than the weight of iron -- i.e., became heavier] until such time as the iron were to return to an equality [of weight] while the [poised] magnet continued to remain unmoved.  I think that by our taking away from the weight [on the side of the balance opposite the iron], the power of the magnet could be said to be proportionally weighed.

In the eighteenth century -- buoyed by Isaac Newton's (1642-1727) elegant mathematical conquest of gravitational attraction and stimulated by his provocative suggestion that the same thing could be accomplished for electricity, light, magnetism, chemical action, and heat -- investigators launched a creative effort to gain mastery over these puzzling "invisibles."  They found it extremely useful to think of them as though they were fluids -- some called them "subtle" fluids [from the Latin word subtilis meaning "fine" or "precise"] because they seemed so tenuous, others called them "imponderable" fluids [from the Latin word ponderare meaning "to weigh"] because their weight seemed to impossible to measure.

The mental model of a fluid helped shape a fruitful program of experimental investigation by:

  • providing language to describe the apparent movement of the invisibles' characteristic powers from one substance to another (flow, current, resistance, pressure...)
  • helping to describe the how and why of "action at a distance" (fluids occupy what appears to be empty space between and within bodies)
  • reducing physical actions to attraction and repulsion (fluids are self-repellent, but attracted to ordinary matter; a body will expand when heated, for example, because it now contains more self-repellent fluid)
  • providing a theoretical framework for measurement (generate the fluid, collect it, analyze it)
  • helping make experimental physics quantitative (if you collect enough fluid, otherwise imperceptible effects on ordinary matter will be made easier to detect and measure)
Collecting Electrical Fluid

The Leyden jar:  In Leyden, Holland (1746), Petrus van Musschenbroek (1692-1761) filled a jar with electrical fluid.

The ability to collect electrical fluid in a convenient container inspired a wide range of new and sometimes dangerous investigations into electricity's elusive properties.  Undaunted by the fact that they were unsure of exactly what to do with their jars of electrical fluid -- what to measure, how to measure it, or even how to interpret a measure -- a diverse group of adventurous researchers began subjecting anything and everything to electricity's influence.

French electrician, Abbé Jean Antoine Nollet (1700-1770) used Musschenbroek's "Leyden" jar to study such things as the flow of electrical fluid through long chains of hand-holding people, and the effect on plants and animals of long-term exposure to electrical fluid.

Luigi Galvani (1737-1798)

Luigi Galvani lived and practiced medicine in Bologna, Italy.  Bologna's famed medical school was renowned for the excellence of its anatomical program.  While Galvani was a student there, pioneering physiologists were conducting research into the role of electricity in muscular contractions:  Is there such a thing as "animal" electricity?  Are nerves conduits for electrical fluid through the body?  What keeps the electrical fluid confined within the nerves?  Is electricity the long-sought-after stuff of life?

It's not clear exactly when Galvani began his own investigations on animal electricity, but by 1780, he had gathered all the necessary materials and equipment:  machines to generate electrical charge, Leyden jars to store the electrical fluid, and frogs.

In January 1781, while a laboratory assistant examined a dissected frog, another assistant was generating electricity using a machine located some distance away.  Just as the dissector touched the frog's femoral nerve with a scalpel, a spark happened to discharge from the electrical machine.  At that instant a noticeable contraction occurred in the frog's leg muscle. 

Galvani found that, by recreating the conditions that preceded the "accidental" contraction, he could reproduce it at will.  Further investigation confirmed that the muscle twitches were coincident with a spark discharge; that a long wire attached to a hook inserted in the frog's spinal cord could substitute for a person holding the scalpel; and that even in the absence of an electric spark, a frog placed on a metal plate would exhibit muscle contractions if the metal hook in its spinal cord was brought into contact with the metal plate.

Galvani believed he had shown that electricity is a fluid inherent in animal matter, and called it nerveo-electric fluid.  He theorized that it is produced in the cerebrum and conducted by nerves to the muscles where it could be held in readiness for use.  He envisioned each muscle fiber as a tiny Leyden jar with its inside positively charged and its outside negatively charged.  Nerves, he claimed, are like wax-coated wires.  Contractions can result whenever a nerve is stimulated by the mind, or by mechanical irritation. 

When Galvani published his results in 1791, the news inspired medical practitioners as well as physical scientists to explore the ways in which artificial electricity could be used to treat disease, resuscitate individuals who had suffered drowning or suffocation, relieve victims of melancholy and restore the use of paralyzed limbs.

It was an unfortunate turn of events for the frogs of Europe because scientists and physicians of all types wanted to see Galvani's effect for themselves.

Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus
by Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Want to see Victor's laboratory?  Find out more about Mary Shelley?  Read her book online? 

Explore the Bakken Library and Museum's electrifying Frankenstein Exhibit!!

excerpts from
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
Letters from Robert Walton to his sister, Mrs. Margaret Saville

Letter 1

I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man....

[Y]ou cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation....

Letter 2

There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand.  I am practically industrious--painstaking, a workman to execute with perseverance and labour--but besides this there is a love for the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all my projects, which hurries me out of the common pathways of men....

Letter 3

But success shall crown my endeavours.  Wherefore not?...  What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?

Chapter 2

Victor Frankenstein:

I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa....  A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind, and bounding with joy, I communicated my discovery to my father....
Cornelius Agrippa (1486 - 1535)
"Ah! Cornelius Agrippa!  My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash."

...I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life....  Wealth was an inferior object, but what glory would attend the discovery if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death?...

When I was about fifteen years old ... we witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm....

Before this I was not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of electricity.  On this occasion a man of great research in natural philosophy was with us, and excited by this catastrophe, he entered on the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to me....

Chapter 3

Professor Waldman (on modern chemistry):

...these [modern] philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles.

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 Frankenstein:

...soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose.  So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein--more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.

Chapter 4

Victor Frankenstein:

Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?...

To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death....

I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplifed in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me--a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret....

After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.

The astonishment which I had at first experienced on this discovery soon gave place to delight and rapture....

Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow....

Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds which I should ... break through.

A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.  No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs....

Frontispiece illustration to 1831 edition of Frankenstein
Chapter 5

Victor Frankenstein:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.  With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.

It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs....

Chapter 24

Victor Frankenstein:

Farewell Walton!  Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.

Go to:
  • Erewhon (1871) by Samuel Butler (1835-1902)
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