It makes your hairs prickle and your muscles twitch. It glows like fire and stings like ice. When natural philosophers first harnessed electricity in the 1700s, it was greeted as a near-supernatural marvel. But their growing understanding of the new force brought with it a brand-new way of understanding the human body.
An ancient Roman prescription for headache relief: a zap from one of these electric rays. Famed Persian physician Ibn Sina continued the tradition, even recommending this form of archaic shock therapy for melancholy and epilepsy. Without a way to separate the spark from the fish, however, the treatment remained necessarily niche.
In 1745, the Leyden jar was invented. Electricity could now be harnessed for science, medicine, and, most importantly, party tricks. King Louis XV even hired a court electrician, Jean-Antoine Nollet, to delight the French nobility with all sorts of shocking feats: among them, suspending a boy from the ceiling on silk threads and electrifying him, making him shoot off sparks and attract feathers, and running a current through a line of 180 soldiers, sending them all leaping in the air.
At electrical soirees, guests watched green lights swirl in ‘aurora flasks’ and ignited cups of liquor with electrified swords. One popular entertainment was the ‘electrifying Venus’. A woman would be seated on a throne and charged with an electrical machine. A spectator would be invited to kiss her, but, leaning in, they would be repelled by a sharp shock before their lips touched.
Electricity was more than a frivolous entertainment, however. As physician Johann Gottlob Krüger told his students, “All things must have a usefulness… Since electricity must have a usefulness, and we have seen that it cannot be looked for either in theology or in jurisprudence, there is obviously nothing left but medicine”. Soon, physicians were experimenting with electrical cures for conditions like paralysis and palsy. Benjamin Franklin himself provided an electrical treatment to a young woman suffering from hysteria.
Electricity was fast becoming the symbol of cutting-edge medicine. Witness the Temple of Health, opened in 1780 by noted eccentric James Graham (pictured here astride his ‘prime conductor’). There, scantily clad ladies termed ‘Goddesses of Health’ posed alongside the latest in electro-medical equipment. The highlight of the extravaganza was the Celestial Bed, an extravagant contraption featuring piped-in perfume, music, and, of course, crackling electricity, the invigorating power of which, Graham asserted, would absolutely guarantee conception.
Around the same time, Luigi Galvani was conducting a much less glamorous set of electrical experiments. Yet his findings were destined to revolutionise the way we think about the nature of the body. Galvani’s experiments with the legs of dead frogs showed that nerve impulses were electrical in nature – leading many to conclude that this ‘animal electricity’ might be the secret of life itself.
If electricity could power life, could it reverse death? In 1803, Giovanni Aldini, Galvani’s nephew, performed a gruesome experiment often cited as the direct inspiration for Frankenstein: he electrocuted the corpse of a recently executed convict. As the corpse quivered and twitched, one eye snapped dramatically open. “It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders,” wrote the Times, “as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”
Frankenstein has become the archetypal story of the scientist who attempts to usurp God, yet some sought God in electricity. John Wesley, the religious reformer, saw it as proof of God’s ineffability: “Who can comprehend how fire lives in water, and passes through it more freely than through air? How flame issues out of my finger, real flame, such as sets fire to spirits of wine?” He purchased an electrical machine in order to offer free healing to the poor.
Others were driven by less charitable motivations. By the mid-19th century, it was clear that electrical medicine was big money. Soon, the market was saturated with electropathic everything: corsets, hair brushes, even socks. “Nine-tenths of all maladies… originate in a vitiated state of the blood, which is caused by an absence of a proper proportion of electricity in that fluid,” claimed an advertisement for galvanic brooches, like this one. Worn against the skin, they were supposed to cure everything from constipation to malaria.
Thanks to the work of Galvani and other scientists, the way we thought of the body had changed. It was now an electrical apparatus. At the same time, the world itself was becoming electrified. This device, the Hodgkinson Electro-Neurotone Apparatus, was used to the treat an extremely of-the-moment condition: ‘Telegraph Operator’s Cramp’. Electricity was no longer a novelty. It was the pulse of modern life, and the inner fire that powers the human machine.