September 18, 2018


In search of the real Frankenstein: Was a Somerset scientist and his daring electrical experiments the inspiration for Mary Shelley's gothic masterpiece? (Marianna Hunt, 18 Sep 2018, The Spectator)

Flashback four years to 1814. Scribbled in the diary of the future Mary Shelley are the words: 'Shelley and Clary out all the morning. Read French Revolution in the evening...Go to Garnerin's. Lecture on Electricity; the gasses and the Phantasmagoria.' It was at this lecture in London that one Somerset scientist, known as 'the Thunder and Lightning Man', laid out his theories on how to harness the power of storms to create electricity.

Amid the wild Quantock Hills the crashes and explosions emanating from an isolated manor house sparked off rumours of devils dancing on electricity wires and hell itself unleashed. In fact, the manor's owner, Andrew Crosse, was channeling lightning strikes by capturing the electrical discharge inside jars in his 'philosophy room', to use for medical purposes. The sounds let off by the electricity discharging created blasts that were often mistaken for the sounds of man-made storms.

Crosse's own letters report his amazement at the deafening noises and five-hour long 'stream of fire' let out by his electrical experiments which 'must be witnessed to be conceived'. Could it be that the man-made thunder claps of the 'Wizard of the Quantocks', as locals nicknamed Crosse, inspired Mary Shelley's eccentric scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who in another 'stream of fire' from 'a most violent and terrible thunderstorm' begins his search for the secret to creating human life?

Not only her main character, but Mary Shelley and her poet husband too were obsessed with the power of electricity. Growing up Percy Shelley would 'practise electricity' on his family, administering them small shocks at the dinner table. While studying at Oxford University he even threatened to electrocute the son of his cleaner.

This year a new story has emerged from two centuries worth of shadows: the tale of Mary Shelley in Bath. It was here that the author experienced the most dramatic events of her life and wrote the majority of Frankenstein. Yet, besotted with its Austen heritage, only in 2018 did the Somerset city commemorate Shelley's connection to Bath. Mary Godwin arrived in the city the mistress of a married man with the beginnings of a story in her mind. Hit by news of the suicides of her lover's wife and her own half-sister, she left Bath with a husband, a new surname, a baby on the way, and with an almost complete manuscript for her novel. This February the city of Bath finally decided to embrace its Mary Shelley legacy by installing a plaque dedicated to the writer. Did Shelley use her time in Somerset to visit the laboratory of 'The Electrician' of the Quantocks? We may never know, but the pages of her novel are tantalisingly suggestive.

Eerily enough, some years after the publication of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus as Shelley subtitled it, Andrew Crosse announced that he himself had created life from his experiments. He claimed that one day as if from nowhere appeared on his desk 'the perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail'. A few days later the Acarus crossii (named after their creator) began moving their legs. Just as Prometheus was tortured for daring to challenge the powers of Creation, Crosse was devastated by the ensuing accusations of blasphemy and became increasingly reclusive.

PODCAST: The Body Electric: Ever since the Romans put electrogenic fish on their heads to cure migraines, we've wondered what electric shocks can do to our brains. (Tom Standage and Seth Stevenson, Secret History of the Future)

We've used electricity to treat our brains for thousands of years, from placing electric fish on our heads to cure migraines to using electroconvulsive therapy to alleviate depression. But over time, our focus has shifted from restoring health to augmenting our abilities. Should we be wearing battery-powered caps to improve our concentration or implanting electricity-emitting devices to expand our thinking capacity? Guests include Bryan Johnson, CEO of Kernel.

Posted by at September 18, 2018 11:37 AM