It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open . . .
A body composed of executed murderers, brought to life by the power of electricity and the mad wantings of a scientist. We all know the story of Frankenstein, but is there any truth to it?
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818 at the age of 21, but the idea came to her in June 1816, when she had a nightmare of a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show the signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” This nightmare was brought about by a conversation she overheard between Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, her husband. They were discussing whether electricity could bring someone to life.
The first experiment of this kind happened in 1780, when Luigi Galvani made frogs twitch with a spark of electricity. By 1803 the experiments had progressed through the animal kingdom and were ready for human trials. On January 17, 1803, in London, Giovanni Aldini (Luigi’s nephew) took it to the next level, and hooked up the body of an executed man to a 120-plate battery. They reported that “on the first application of the arcs the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.” He also made it’s back arch, the chest rise and fall, and the arms move. The guy didn’t come back to life, but it made a hell of a show.
How does it work?
Nerves, like some people I know, are always slightly negative on the inside. In the case of cells, this is because of the things that float in the cytoplasm having a net negative charge. Cells also have more potassium ions (K+) on the inside, while the exterior has more sodium ions (Na+). That’s how they like it when they’re at home with their feet up. When nerves receive a signal, they get off their ass and open up sodium channels, causing a sudden in rush of sodium ions (which like it in the cell because it’s slightly negative, and low on sodium). The cramming in of positive ions cause an area on the long arm of an axon to become positive all of a sudden.
This is called depolarisation, and it triggers two things. First, the signal moves along the nerve by opening nearby sodium channels, a process called propagation. Second, it opens a bunch of potassium channels which cause potassium ions to exit the cell, causing the charge inside to become negative again. In fact, it works a little too well, and causes the area to become even more negative than it was before which stops the signal going back the way it came. That’s called hyperpolarisation.
After that it starts up sodium/potassium pumps in the depolarised area, which pumps out all the sodium and brings back potassium, repolarising the cell. The area goes back to normal, puts it’s feet up and takes a rest. The signal continues to propagate in one direction until it causes the eventual reaction intended, like, say, to contract a muscle and make my fingers type along the keyboard.
It’s electricity, dear Watson! So fire up a dead body with a ton of electricity, and the nerves will contract like they’ve got signals coming in from all sides. Nerves just go nuts, and the muscles spasm in response!
Can electricity bring a dead body to life? Well, yeah… CLEAR!
If that dead body is assembled from a lot of other dead bodies that have been buried and dug up by a mad scientist? Not so much…