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No. 853:
Inventing Frankenstein

Today, Mary Shelley will speak in my place. 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.

Let's listen as Mary Shelley tells, in her own voice, how she invented Victor Frankenstein and his monster. The date was 1816. Mary Shelley was only 19. And she offers us a theory of invention along with the history of her idea.

"Everything," she begins, "must have a beginning. That beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant to support it, but the elephant stands on a tortoise. Invention [is not created] out of the void, but out of chaos. The materials must first be there."

And what were the materials she worked with? She continues:

"Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley. During one of these, the principle of life [was discussed -- whether it could ever be] discovered. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin who preserved a piece of vermicelli till by some extraordinary means it began to move ... "

"Perhaps a corpse [could] be re-animated; galvanism [hints of] such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth."

In the most arresting part of her account, Mary Shelley tells how her story formed from the chaos of their converations.

"Night waned upon this [talk." She says, "Even] the witching hour had gone by. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw -- with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, -- [a pale] student of the 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 signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion."

And how would Victor Frankenstein react? She tells us,

"Success would terrify [him. He would rush] from his odious handy-work, horror stricken. He would hope that slight spark of life would fade; that this thing would subside into dead matter."

"[He falls into] sleep; but he [wakes]. The horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking at him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes."

We experience a moment of detachment just before sleep. As Mary Shelley reached that moment, she was still replaying the evening's conversation in her mind. Suddenly, bits of talk fused into the most perfect tale of horror ever written. Just as sleep came to her, Victor Frankenstein blinked awake, transfixed by the same brooding gaze that has held us all -- ever since.

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

(Theme music)

See, e.g., Jennings, H., Pandaemonium: 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers. New York: The Free Press, 1985, "Frankenstein," pp. 141-142. (I haven't shown my fairly extensive cuts in Mary Shelley's text. You might like to see the full text in a copy of the 1819 edition of Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus.)

See the following resource page on Mary Shelley. It includes the full text of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein or a Modern Prometheus. (By that time, unfortunately, she'd rewritten the 1819 Preface from which I quote in this episode.)