As Mary Shelley described it, the inspiration for Frankenstein came to her all at once in a nighttime apparition: “I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” she wrote in the preface to the novel’s 1831 edition. “I saw the hideous phantom 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.”
Shelley’s version of events has been largely disputed in the years since Frankenstein’s publication, with some scholars arguing she invented a dramatic moment of inspiration to please her readers. But regardless of the truth of its origin story, Frankenstein was as much a product of the science of the day as it was of any nightmare.
At the time she began to write it, Shelley was vacationing outside Geneva with a group of intellectuals that included Lord Byron, physician John Polidori, and her husband, the poet Percy Shelley. Often, as she noted in the preface, the group’s evening discussions would turn to galvanism, the contraction of muscles stimulated by electricity—a newly-discovered phenomenon that captivated the scientists of the early 19th century. It captivated Shelley, too: “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things,” she wrote. “Perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”