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No. 41:

Today, we call up one of our favorite nightmares. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I was thirteen years old the night I made the lonely mile-and-a-half trek back home from the movie theater where I'd just watched Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. It was a wintry night, with a full moon flickering through naked branches whipping in the wind, and I tell you I was flat-out frightened to death. What makes the Frankenstein story such a powerful part of our folklore? Why is it so much more than just one more movie plot -- seen and forgotten?

Mary Godwin, soon to become Percy Shelley's wife, wrote it in the Summer of 1816 when she and Shelley and other members of Lord Byron's hippie entourage vacationed with Byron in Switzerland. Mary was the 19-year-old daughter of a noted feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. The group talked about creating a modern Gothic novel and agreed they'd each have a go at it. Mary was the only one who really succeeded, and she gave us the book Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

It was a brilliant piece of work for someone so young. But it came out of a hotbed of post-industrial-revolution intellectuals, steeped in a rising concern over what science and industrialization were doing to the world.

Her young protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, tells us early on that

My reluctant steps led me to M. Krempe, professor
of natural philosophy, an uncouth man, but deeply
imbued in the secrets of his science.

And under Krempe's instruction, Frankenstein's Faustian quest for knowledge takes him to the terrifying secret of life. His product, the monster, is more articulate, more intelligent, and more able to feel pain than his human maker. The monster produced by Frankenstein's intelligence and creative drive had Frankenstein's intelligence and sensibilities, but in a kind of grotesque parody. In a curious way, Frankenstein and his monster merge together.

Mary Shelley was unmistakably talking about the science-based technology of her day. The subject interested her. Later in her life she wrote biographies of famous scientists for Dionysius Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Her Frankenstein expressed her recognition of the dangers that lay in our new powers.

In retrospect, I had reason to be frightened as I scuttled home that night. Mary Shelley had summoned up a monster that can be found in any of us -- the monster that Victor Frankenstein released when he let himself be obsessed by technical knowledge. In the end, the monster portrayed his obsessiveness. In the end, science and engineering can serve human needs only insofar as engineers and scientists learn to know and control themselves.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Shelley, M., Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. (1831 edition, edited by M. K. Joseph). London: Oxford University Press.

For more on Shelley and Frankenstein, see Episode 853.

For a revised and expanded version of this episode see Episode 1337.