Electrifying

09 09 luigi galvaniToday I am celebrating the birthday of Luigi Galvani who was born in Bologna, Italy in 1737. He attended the University of Bologna where he studied medicine, surgery and philosophy. He became a lecturer at the university and in 1762 became a permanent anatomist and head of surgery there. In 1776 his interest moved into theoretical anatomy and he was appointed as anatomy teacher at the Academy of Sciences. One of his tasks there was give an annual public anatomy lesson which involved a human dissection. This seems like a very odd affair and I wish I had more time today to read about it. The event was part of a carnival that took place in January and the specially built theatre where it took place was decked out for the occasion with rich fabrics and candles. Some of the attendees were the masked carnival goers.

09 09 frog's legsIn the mid eighteenth century scientists had just discovered how to store electricity in a Leyden Jar and the effects of electricity on the body was a subject of much interest. Galvani is best known as the person who first applied an electrical charge to the legs of a dissected frog and observed that it caused the muscles to contract as if the frog were still alive. I can’t find a specific date for the event and it seems that it happened by accident. His assistant was using a brass hook to hold the leg still and touched a muscle with a steel scalpel that had picked up an electrical charge from a nearby static electricity generator. Anatomists knew that the movement of muscles were somehow governed by the brain and the nervous system, but it was generally believed that the nerves were hollow structures filled with fluid or air that flowed in and out of the muscles causing them to expand of contract. Galvani concluded that the nerves transmitted a kind of electrical charge, which he called animal electricity, from the brain.

09 09 voltaic pileIn a way, he was right, the brain and nerves do operate using tiny bursts of electrical energy, but the charge would have been much too small for him to measure. The chemist and physicist Alessandro Volta disagreed with his conclusion. He realised that the muscle of the frog was acting as a conductor of electricity which completed a circuit between the two different metals. He found that a sheet of brine soaked paper would work just as well to make a connection between the metals. This work led to him developing the first battery, the Voltaic Pile, in 1799.

Galvani’s report on his electrical experiments was also part of Mary Shelley’s summer reading list when, in 1816, she was spending and unseasonable summer at Lake Geneva. It was here, at the Villa Diodati, on a dark and stormy night, that she first had an idea for a story about a young doctor who used electricity to re-animate a corpse.09 09 charles ogle, frankenstein, 1910

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