Before scientists figured out electric motors, batteries were first used in chemistry experiments and primitive medical research. From his enjoyable book, The Battery, Henry Schlesinger describes the real-life Dr. Frankenstein who inspired Mary Shelley's classic horror story:
At the dawn of the 19th century, electricity was still mysterious and experimentation took some strange turns indeed. Gentlemen scientists began applying current to plants, animals and their own genitals to test its effects.
Science was not only new and glamorous, but also held the potential to reveal secrets previously unknown to man—making it nearly blasphemous. As for the scientists, they made it a point to be as compelling as possible. The idea was to instruct through entertainment. Among the more spectacular of these science shows was that of Giovanni Aldini, the physicist nephew of [world-renowned electricity pioneer and frog electrocutor] Luigi Galvani.
An early and ardent supporter of his uncle's theory of animal electricity, he surpassed experiments featuring twitching frogs, taking the same general principles to stunningly morbid levels. During one demonstration in the early 1800s, Aldini applied current from a powerfully charged Leyden jar to the head of a freshly slaughtered ox, causing audiences to gasp as the eyes, nose and tongue convulsed and spasmed.
Moving on to humans, he acquired subjects from local authorities fresh from execution for experimentation and demonstrations. "A large incision was made into the nape of the neck, close below the occiput," Aldini wrote of one early experiment on a recently deceased 30-year-old man. He continued:
The posterior half of the Atlas vertebra was then removed by forceps, when the spinal marrow was brought into view. A profuse flow of liquid blood gushed from the wound, inundating the floor. A considerable incision at the same time was made in the left hip through the great gutteal muscle so as to bring the sciatic nerve into sight, and a small cut was made in the heel; the pointed rod with one end connected to the battery was now placed in contact with the spinal marrow, while the other rod was placed in contact with the sciatic nerve. Every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements resembling violent shuddering from the cold…On moving the second rod from the hip to the heel, the knee being previously bent, the leg was thrown out with such force the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension.
In other experiments and demonstrations, Aldini reportedly used just the heads of executed prisoners. Moistening both ears with a brine solution, he completed a circuit with two wires—very much resembling 21st century MP3 player headphones—attached to a crude battery comprised of a hundred layers of silver and zinc.
"When this communication was established, I observed strong contractions in the muscles of the face, which were contorted in so irregular a manner that they exhibited the appearance of the most horrid grimaces," he wrote. "The action of the eye-lids was exceedingly striking, though less sensible in the human head than in that of an ox."
Traveling from Bologna to Paris, and then on to London, Aldini took his gruesome show on the road, staging scientific demonstrations featuring human cadavers and animals with theatrical flourish at universities and medical schools. Though usually not open to the general public, these demonstrations were excitedly reported in the popular press causing a sensation across Europe.
In London, George Forster, found guilty of murdering his wife and child and duly executed, was rolled out on stage and into medical history at the Royal College of Surgeons fresh from the gallows at Newgate Prison. As Aldini began prodding the body with two rods attached to a charged Leyden Jar, Forster's legs, mouth, and rectum clenched and contorted.
Aldini's efforts earned him the Royal Society's Copley Medal and to his credit he never actually claimed to reanimate the dead, rather, he restricted his comments to more scientific phrases such as "command the vital powers" and "exerted a considerable power over the nervous and muscular systems." The Times of London also took a conservative view after witnessing his experiment in 1803:
Its object was to shew [sic] the excitability of the human frame, when this animal electricity is duly applied. In cases of drowning or suffocation, it promises to be of the utmost use, by reviving the action of the lungs, and thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality. In cases of apoplexy, or disorders of the head, it offers also most encouraging prospects for the benefit of mankind. The Professor, we understand, has made use of galvanism also in several cases of insanity, and with complete success. It is the opinion of the first medical men that this discovery, if rightly managed and duly prosecuted, cannot fail to be of unforeseen utility.
Yet the conclusions drawn by those outside the medical and scientific communities were often not as nuanced. If movement was tantamount to life, then life had been somewhat restored through electric shocks. Could it be possible that death was no longer permanent? Given the already uneasy relationship with the mystery of death prevalent during the 19th century, it seemed wholly possible that electricity might one day provide a viable alternative to the inevitability of the graveyard.
For many such anecdotes about the colorful personalities of scientists and impresarios who sought to harness the Promethean power of the electron, Schlesinger's book, The Battery, is well worth the price. It's now available everywhere—$17.15 in hardback at Amazon, $9.99 for the Kindle version.
This copyrighted book excerpt is used with permission from Smithsonian Books, a HarperCollins imprint.