The Real Frankenstein: Giovanni Aldini
By N Mark Castro
Much reviled, much dismissed, much feared, Giovanni Aldini was a nephew of Luigi Galvani who was the first to study the effects of electricity on animals. To this date, bioelectricity is still carefully studied in the field of science.
And Aldini, as the nephew, took Galvanism to heights Luigi Galvani could not possibly imagine.
As a physicist, Aldini pursued the science of his uncle, what is known as Galvanism (bioelectricity) to discover how it impacts the body. He started with animals and later on dead human bodies. He traveled all over Europe publicly electrifying human and animal bodies, and his performances were extraordinary theatrical spectacles.
Although it is through his uncle’s experiment that sparked the interest of Alessandro Volta (who would later be credited for the invention of batteries, hence, the word voltage), it was Aldini that compressed electricity and showed its impact to the entire known world of Europe.
In January 1803, the body of the murderer George Forster was pulled from the gallows of Newgate Prison in London and taken to the Royal College of Surgeons. There, before an audience of doctors and curiosity-seekers, Giovanni Aldini, nephew of the late Luigi Galvani, prepared to return the corpse to life.
At least, that is what some of the spectators thought they were witnessing. When Aldini applied conducting rods, connected to a large battery, to Forster’s face, “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened”. The climax of the performance came as Aldini probed Forster’s rectum, causing his clenched fist to punch the air, as if in fury, his legs to kick and his back to arch violently.
In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.
Aldini’s act sparked the imaginations of the Brits and within a generation, Scottish experimenters were performing similar feats and the College of Surgeons had, after further attempts similar to Aldini’s, revived the heart of another convicted murderer, John Bellingham. It was the first recorded heart shock revival in modern medical history and, hence, the birth of modern pacemaker and the electric shock performed to revive the dead.
The Voltaic pile that was originally used to disprove Galvani’s fluids theory by Alessandro Volta, however, were largely non-adversarial, so Volta actively advanced Aldini’s uncle Galvani’s name through the word “galvanism” and, by the time of Foster’s death, “galvanize.” The term “galvanized” metal refers to a conductive element coated with something non-conductive and dates from the late 1830s. Volta, of course, is the recognizable source of the the electrical potential unit of the “Volt.”
And, of course, as Aldini went around Europe, you can imagine the effect these results had on popular culture, where Mary Shelley, well aware of Aldini’s work, used the idea of reanimation — such as was attempted on her husband’s first wife after she drowned — to inspire her signature characters, Victor Frankenstein and his “monster,” thereby creating one of the most Gothic — and certainly scariest — literature on earth.
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.”
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.
This battery has become the basis of what we now know as the cellular phone battery, which is what you use to access your mobile phone, as depicted in Discovery Channel’s production —
But what’s quite interesting is how Aldini became his generation’s science equivalence of Elvis Presley, and with his contributions to science, he was made a Knight by the emperor of Austria.
I say quite interesting because as Giovanni Aldini became the father of modern day cellular phone battery, another person from Austria would sashay many years later to become the most gorgeous influence of the modern day cellular phone.