June 29, 2017
Alessandro Volta, Frog Dissection, And The Birth of Frankenstein

Take one twitching frog, add an intrepid Italian physicist named Alessandro Volta and an imaginative English novelist named Mary Shelley, and you get a literary classic: Frankenstein.

Volta – whose 270th birthday is celebrated today with a Google doodle – is widely known as the inventor of the battery. But perhaps he's lesser known for the minor influence his research had on Gothic literature when electricity was a mysterious force not well understood by his contemporaries.

It was so misunderstood, in fact, that some scientists thought frogs generated "animal electricity," Vox reported. Alessandro believed that himself at one point. That was until he had a better idea: that frogs weren't electrified themselves, but actually conducted electricity.

Heavy reported that the epiphany came to Volta (full name Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta) while he was dissecting a frog in an attempt to test the "animal electricity" theory supported by a fellow scientist, Luigi Galvani. When an electrical charge surged through the frog's leg, it gave a twitch.

Galvani had a ghoulish theory as to why. He thought the leg twitched because the muscles carried an electrical fluid. In fact, he's credited with founding bioelectricity, or the relationship between electromagnetic fields and living creatures.

But Volta thought otherwise. He decided the leg twitched because two different metals had touched during dissection and generated the current. It won as the more plausible explanation, and Volta took that theory further and gave us the battery. So, whenever you flip channels with the remote, you have Alessandro and some dissected frogs to thank for the privilege.

As for Galvani, he compiled his investigations in a report. That report was evidently read by Mary Shelley, leading up to her participation in a ghost story contest in which she conjured her classic, reanimated monster Frankenstein. She didn't mention electrical animation, however, in the novel.

But Alessandro Volta wasn't a one-trick pony. He also invented the voltaic pile, discovered methane, and invented the methane gun, which he filled with methane and lit with electrophorus, Vox explained. But it was Alessandro's work with the battery that earned him some attention from Napoleon Bonaparte, who saw it at work in 1801 and gave him a gold medal and the title of count as a reward.

[Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]