Is Sir Humphry Davy the real father of Frankenstein?
December 17 marks the birthday in 1778 of Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet and President of the Royal Society, and October 28 may mark the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein’s scientific birth in 1816. Sir Humphry Davy was a chemist and inventor from Cornwall who is most noted today as the originator of the scientific field of electrochemistry and for isolating several elements of the periodic table, calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium and boron. Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the commercial incandescent light bulb, but it Davy who in 1802 first demonstrated the principle of passing electric current from a battery through metal to create a light source. The first demonstration using platinum was very sort and impractical. In 1806 he used two rods of carbon passing electricity across the gap to create the first arc light.
Humphry Davy developed the concepts of Alessandro Volta, to create the most powerful electrical battery in the world at the Royal Institution. With it, he created the first incandescent light by passing electric current through a thin strip of platinum, chosen because the metal had an extremely high melting point. It was neither sufficiently bright nor long lasting enough to be of practical use, but demonstrated the principle. By 1806 he was able to demonstrate a much more powerful form of electric lighting to the Royal Society in London. It was an early form of arc light which produced its illumination from an electric arc created between two charcoal rods.
Davy had a close working friendship with James Watt, the inventor of the practical steam engine from whom we get the word for power, Wattage. Davy was also an amateur poet and friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and England’s Poet Laureate, Robert Southey. Davy and Watt were the creators of Nitrous Oxide “Laughing Gas”, first thinking it might be a cure for a hangover, but then envisioning its use as an anesthetic for surgical procedures. The gas became popular among the romantic poets for its more hallucinogenic properties.
As early as 1801, Davy began giving a series of lectures on the concept of “Galvanism”, inspired by the experiments of Luigi Galvani, passing electricity through muscle tissue to create a reaction and the application of electrical current to create a chemical reaction. Davy’s lectures with his spectacular demonstrations were a sensation in England, bringing the Italian scientist’s work into popular familiarity. Davy later used the Voltaic Pile battery to separate and produce elements becoming the basis for his most noted work.
So what does Davy have to do with the birth of Frankenstein? Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a familiar participant to the company of the intellectual discussions of William Godwin and his circle of philosophers and poets. Mary Shelley was introduced at a youthful age to the theories of electrochemistry and Galvanism. It was Coleridge who told of experiments he witnessed using Galvani’s theories on executed prisoners at Newgate Prison. Percy Shelley was an enthusiastic acolyte to the use of batteries and electricity. In his days at Oxford as a reaction to bullying he created a hand-cranked battery to shock entrants to his room who would touch the doorknob. He passed his enthusiasm for the ideas of Davy, proposing that giant farms of electric batteries would power utopian cities of the future, onto Mary in their early courtship. It was likely these concepts which initially excited Mary’s imagination to the possibility bringing to life to the dead. While formulating the first chapters of Frankenstein while residing in Bath, Mary reread and referred to Sir Humphry Davy’s reference work on chemistry.
On October 28, 1816, Mary recorded in her diary “Read the Introduction to Sir H. Davy’s Chemistry–write” while in Bath. The “write” refers to the first chapters of her work on her novel, which she had begun seriously on her return from Geneva. She mentioned Davy for her reference in her journals up through November 4 of 1816, delving for a week to write about chemistry and its relation to what she called Natural Philosophy in the chapters 2 and 4 of her notebook drafts.
In later lectures, after the book of Frankenstein was first published, Davy was approached by a young woman asking him if the theory of bringing the reconstructed dead back to life was possible. What his reply was is not recorded but he was apparently sufficiently familiar with the work to feel bemused that the theory which animated Mary Shelley’s fictional creature may have come from him.
Davy’s other connection to Frankenstein may be only coincidental, though perhaps a bit more than that. In his later life, Sir Humphry Davy left England and traveled, eventually settling in Geneva, Switzerland, spending his later days a short distance from the Villa Diodati, and strolling the lake shores haunted by Mary Shelley’s creation in her novel. Sir Humphry Davy is buried in the cemetery of Geneva’s PlainPalais, where the murder of Victor Frankenstein’s son took place and just a few steps from where the modern statue of “Frankie” commemorating the Geneva connection to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein still stalks, looking for a reconnection to the scientific father who turned from him.