Andrea here, musing today on a very “shocking” topic! Ha—now that I have your attention, I shall explain! I have a new release coming out on the 24th. Murder at Kensington Palace is the third book in my Wrexford & Sloane Regency mystery series, and the plot involves electricity!
The voltaic pile (basically the first electrical battery) was invented by Alessandro Volta in 1800. As often happens in the world of invention, the discovery was sparked by a disagreement he had with Luigi Galvani, another man of science who had discovered he could make the legs of a dead frog “jump “ when they were used to form a circuit between two different type of metal. Galvani claimed he had discovered animal electricity—an electrical fluid inherent in the frog itself.
Volta believed the reaction had a more rational explanation than that, and set about creating a chemical electrolyte (the fluid that creates the circuit between two different metals and thus an electrical current.) He soaked cloth or cardboard in brine and spaced them between disks of zinc and metal—and lo and behold created an electrical current! By adding more disks and electrolyte pads, he discovered he could make a voltaic pile more powerful.
This awesome new discovery was hugely exciting to the scientific world during the Regency. In London, people flocked to the Royal Institution, one of the leading scientific organizations of the time, to hear lectures and see demonstrations of voltaic batteries.
I was lucky enough last summer to visit the Royal Institution, which is still in the same wonderful classical building on Albemarle Street in London as it was in Regency times. In the basement is a recreation of the Regency laboratory of Michael Faraday, a very famous scientist and pioneer in electricity. I was able to see an actual trough battery—which is the most powerful type of voltaic pile—amid all the other scientific equipment of the day. It figures prominently in Murder at Kensington Palace. (Sorry, you have to read the book to discover just how!) The people at the Royal Institution were very excited to hear I was plotting a murder within their august walls and were gracious enough to give me the thumbs up!
While the Royal Institution encouraged rational experiments, Galvani’s ideas that living organisms possessed some inherent electrical fluid didn’t die out. In fact, he became famous for his lectures showing the jumping frogs, and a great many people believed his claims that voltaic piles could perhaps reanimate the dead and create eternal life. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was inspired by Galvanism.) He also began to draw huge audiences with his claim that illnesses could be cured as many were caused by blockages in the life fluid that electricity could fix.
His nephew, Giovanni Aldini took things to even greater extremes. He insisted his uncle’s theory that the dead could possibly be reanimated was true and set out to prove it. In 1803, he convinced the authorities at Newgate Prison to let him have the corpse of George Foster, a man hanged for murder. Poor Foster was rushed fresh from the gallows to a nearby house, where Aldini had assembled an audience to witness his gruesome experiment. Electrical stimulus from a voltaic pile was applied to the corpse. An account from the time reported:
“On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.”
Britain’s scientific community, led by paragons of rational, empirical-based men of science like Sir Humphry Davy, (who constructed one of the most powerful voltaic piles of the era—it used 2,000 disks!) turned its back on such quackery—as quackery it was. But on the Continent, galvanism and Aldini’s claims remained popular. There are a number of stories about other more gruesome experiments seeking to prove the dead could be brought back to life, but I shall spare you!
I’ve been having great fun weaving scientific discoveries into the plots of my mystery series. One of the reasons I love the Regency era is because of how new ideas challenged the accepted preconceptions and radically changed society—whether people wanted them to or not! Change is frightening, and I find that that helps adds an extra aura of danger and tension to a conundrum. In Murder at Kensington Palace, Charlotte, one of the main protagonists in the series, must face some very elemental questions about her place in life—and what she’s willing to sacrifice—when faced with exploring new ideas in order to find the truth about the death of someone she holds very dear.
Electricity was especially compelling theme. Imagine that sense of wonder when people discovered that they could create powerful currents, and realized all the possibilities it offered! Today, I think most of us simply can’t picture a world without electricity. So, here’s my question—what would you miss most if the grid suddenly shut off? (Having lost power for seven days during Hurricane Sandy, I have first-hand experience in realizing just how much of modern life runs on electricity!) Please share!