Shocking Exhibitions: Popularizing Galvanism by the Use of Public Demonstrations in the Early Nineteenth-Century
by: Karol Chudy, Tim Hui, Michael Ippolito, Alan Krigline, Andie Sena and Krista Staskevicius


The Oxford English Dictionary defines galvanism as “electricity developed by chemical action, [and] the application of this for therapeutic purposes.” More simply put, galvanism is the stimulation of a muscle contraction by an electric current. During the early stages of galvanism research, experiments were conducted on everything from small animals to human corpses. Luigi Galvani coined the term animal electricity to classify these muscular spasms generated by the use of electricity. Research on galvanism began in the late eighteenth century and continued to grow throughout England and Europe.

Figure 1.  Luigi Galvani conducted many scientific experiments, famously his experiments on dead frogs.  The illustration above appeared in his book De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari, published in 1792.
Figure 1. Luigi Galvani conducted many scientific experiments, famously his experiments on dead frogs. The illustration above appeared in his book De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari, published in 1792.

As galvanism studies continued into the early nineteenth century, there were various approaches for scientists to popularize their research and gain academic notoriety. Academics Iwan Morus and Joost Mertens both identify a division in the field of galvanism research. On one hand, the wealthy scientists of established institutions developed scientific theories and shared them amongst their fellow colleagues. On the other hand, some scientists performed more theatrical, public demonstrations to popularize their profession, or themselves rather, and acquire fortune.

Although these two scholars have clearly distinguished this dichotomy, they fail to recognize which of these two ideologies played a more significant role in establishing galvanism in early nineteenth-century society; furthermore, the public demonstrations more significantly bolstered the influence of electromagnetism in nineteenth-century Europe by increasing public awareness and strengthening the appeal of science.

Romantic Period Treatises

During the Romantic period in Britain and Europe, many scientific treatises and detailed journals were published by scientists developing their research. Joseph Priestly conducted experiments on various animals and published his findings in The History and Present State of Electricity in 1767. He detailed his methodology and observations of electrocuting animals and analyzing their physical responses. In 1786, Galvani conducted an experiment on a dead frog, making it jump without any external electric sources. Figure 1 shows an illustration of Galvani’s research. He published his findings on galvanism in the Comentarii of Bologna Academy of Sciences. The actual published date is speculated to be 1792, but is not known to be certain. Like most of these journals, Galvani’s publication caused wonder and curiosity among physicians in the scientific community. Galvani’s discoveries are said to have “caused great feeling in scientific circles” (Bernardi 3). It is interesting to note that although these publications excited physicians and scientists within “scientific circles,” but it did not necessarily appeal to the common man. Adding to the collection of scientific writings, Giovanni Aldini published An account of the late improvements in galvanism, with a series of curious and interesting experiments performed before the commissioners of the French National Institute, and repeated lately in the anatomical theaters of London, an influential book in 1803 detailing many of his experiments performed for a public audience. Many other treatises were published in the early 1800s including John Bostock’s An Account of the History and Present State of Galvanism, published in 1818, which describes a multitude of Galvani’s experiments including his original, mind-blowing findings from 1786. These treatises were not particularly of great interest to the common man as he was not the primary target audience, rather the audience was research scientists.

Throughout the Romantic period, many scientific establishments governed the scientific world, such as the Royal Institution and Royal Society. Members of the Royal Society included galvanism and electromagnetism researchers such as Joseph Priestly and Alessandro Volta, and these scientists would often present their treatises to the institutions. These societies had a strong presence, mostly within the scientific circle. Additionally, different groups would also form and try to establish their authority. For example, in 1809 a few scientists decided to form an assistant society called the Animal Chemistry Club (Coley 174, 175). However, membership to this sub-society was never open to the public, and further excluded the general public from partaking in the advance of scientific research.

While these ‘elite’ scientists often obtained funding through various societies and sponsors to continue pursuing advances in the electrical field, it is important to note that this group of people did not encompass all electricians, rather far from it. Iwan Morus points out that only the professoriate could “gain access to the Royal Society, the Royal and London Institutions, or King’s College.” (Morus, "Currents of the Underworld" 52). These higher ranking members of the electricians network were not at all concerned with gaining notoriety among the public, rather circulating their newest findings within the higher echelons of the philosophical community.

Conversely, the ‘common’ electrician was focused on convenience, simplicity and economy when it came to designing and showing off his instruments.

In other words these men looked to electricity primarily as a means of supporting themselves financially. Whether their goal was to increase public interest in electricity as a science more so than the professoriate isn’t necessarily clear, but Iwan Morus is quick to point out that because the elite was more interested in sharing their findings among the rest of their philosophical community, “Members of the lower and middle class were more likely to derive their perceptions of electrical science from an electrician’s lecture than from pronouncements by Faraday” (Morus, "Currents of the Underworld" 53).

Public Demonstrations and Their Significance

Although the presence of the academic institutions in London played a vital role in the growth of galvanism research, the often-spectacular demonstrations, as seen in Figure 2, performed by scientists proved to be a more significant factor in its development and popularity in nineteenth century London. During the Romantic era, scientific communities, such as the Royal Society of London, experienced a decline in scientific integrity; these stately institutions, which once held a firm grasp on the scientific developments of the day, withered into mere social clubs comprised of aristocrats interested only in their own wealth and personal notoriety (Miller 1). Due to the exclusive nature of these institutions, many of their scientific accomplishments failed to reach out beyond the scientific circles in which they were discovered.

A prime example of this limited expansion of ideas can be seen in Volta’s creation of the electrometer. In 1800 Volta published his findings in a letter entitled “On the Electricity Excited by the Mere Contact of Conducting Substances of Different Kinds” (Mertens 300). Although Volta’s invention was remarkable, it could only be appreciated with a well-developed understanding of the methods and measurements he employed. Volta’s work was ground-breaking; yet, his discovery involved an electrometer which proved his theory with only slight alterations from the equilibrium. The true importance of this development existed in the conceptual value that existed behind his lackluster performance. With that being said, the technical terminology in his treatise regarding the electrometer successfully impressed the sophisticated scientists of the day, but failed to excite the masses who remained ignorant with their nineteenth century colloquialisms. “In order to convince people outside the tiny circle of learned men who possessed the requisite instruments and experimental skills, Volta would have to think of a way to amplify the electrometer response. General recognition of his jurisdiction over metallic electricity would require more spectacular demonstrations” (Mertens 308).

Figure 2. Public galvanic demonstrations were a popular attraction for civilians.  Louis Figuier depects how experiments conducted on humans created both a sense of wonder and horror in “Le docteur Ure galvanisant le corps de l’assassin Clydsdale” (1867).
Figure 2. Public galvanic demonstrations were a popular attraction for civilians. Louis Figuier depects how experiments conducted on humans created both a sense of wonder and horror in “Le docteur Ure galvanisant le corps de l’assassin Clydsdale” (1867).

As made apparent by Joost Mertens in his “Shocks and Sparks: The Voltaic Pile as a Demonstration Device,” public displays served as a method to capture the public attention; and, with this increased attention, both the science and the scientist experienced an increase in public credibility and significance. Stevin Shapin and Simon Schaffer further supported the relevance of public displays with their work in Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Through their studies of the origins of experimental science, these two authors developed a theory known as the “multiplication of witnesses.” With this idea these authors postulate that a fact can only truly develop if there are multiple witnesses to reinforce the idea. Along with reinforcing the theories behind the experiment, the multiple witnesses also serve as an audience that will then appreciate the experimenter for his work.

As you can see, there is agreement in the scholastic community regarding the division of galvanism research; yet, despite the acknowledgement of this fact by many authors, there still exists an absence of opinion on which of these fields played a more dominant role in the growth of this electric science. Although the scientific institutions possessed the distinction and academic authority to develop and publish new ideas, the disinterest in scientific endeavors that swept these organizations decreased their impact in the realm of public science. On that same note, the few publications that these institutions did produce were far too elaborate and complex in their diction to have any relevance in the eyes of the general public; so, it can be said that these organizations had no significant role in the aggregate growth of galvanism research in European Society. With the royal institutions out of the picture, only one possible branch of study remains: public demonstrations.

Public demonstrations served as the more dominant method of broadcasting ideas to the general audience due to its innate ability to induce fascination in crowds and relay the practicality of the science to those who needed it most. In terms of its ability to spread information, public demonstrations far exceeded the reaching power of any formal scientific publication. When performers, such as Aldini and Volta, put on their displays, they intrigued masses of people. The number of influenced people would then grow exponentially as word spread of the performances until the knowledge became so ubiquitous that it was accepted as fact. More importantly, these facts, after being performed in a common setting without complex equipment, would actually be relevant to the people who witnessed them. In reality these experiments were so successful in their ability to relay information that they actually breached the realm of science and had an impact on the literature of the era.


In addition to popularizing galvanism, the theatrical public demonstrations of animal electricity inspired romantic writers, resulting in many horrific literary works that reflected the terror these experiments evoked. These science fiction works, based on relevant and ongoing discoveries, served as a means to garner public interest in galvanic experiments in a manner similar to the demonstrations conducted.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818 and illustrated in Figure 3, is one of the works that resulted from the public galvanism experiments (Kemp 529). In the preface of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes the agreement made among herself, Lord Byron, and John William Polidori to write horror stories. She explains her inspiration for her novel stemmed from the numerous public demonstrations of galvanic experiments and her resulting feelings of revulsion (Morus "Frankenstein’s Children" 4). Her frightened reaction gave fruit to a literary piece that continues to be discussed in the present.
Figure 3. An illustration of an addition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818.
Figure 3. An illustration of an addition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818.

In addition to incorporating elements of galvanic experiments, Shelley’s novel calls into question the experimenter’s morals after committing such an act and how he is to be accepted by the public due to the dubious measures taken to bring the creature to life. Furthermore, a significant portion of the story focuses the relationship among the monster, Dr. Frankenstein, and the rest of society. (Morus "Frankenstein’s Children" 4).

Much like the scientists conducting galvanic experiments, Dr. Frankenstein’s work had the “sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body.” In the novel, Shelley recounts Dr. Frankenstein’s horrific experiences and ensuing nightmares in resurrecting the corpse through the incredible use of electric current, likening his fear to facing demons, mummies, or other monsters, and using terms that allude to the use of electricity (Shelley 97-104).

In the beginning of Shelley’s novel, Dr. Frankenstein, the brilliant scientist, discusses the night in which he created life, however he hardly mentions any details regarding the “instruments of life” used to animate the monster (Shelley 97). In the same way, the shocking public demonstrations focus not on the detailed research behind animal electricity, but rather on the resulting convulsions of the test subjects. Nonetheless, it is evident that this “spark of being” that breathes life into the monster refers to galvanism (Shelley 97). In fact, Dr. Frankenstein’s work closely resembles specific experimentations with galvanism, such as the gruesome experiments on a kitten conducted by Karl August Weinhold. Prior to imbuing the prone body with electricity, Weinhold removed the brain and spinal cord, then filled the cavity with a mixture of zinc and silver. He proudly proclaimed kitten revitalized, concluding that bimetallic energy could mimic the electricity of the nervous system (Finger 434).

Ultimately, the literary works inspired by galvanism bolstered the public’s interest and understanding of animal electricity in the same way as the theatrical open demonstrations. The complex scientific findings behind the dramatic experiments, while available to the public, rarely appealed to the average citizen. The focus on the use of electricity and test subject followed by the convulsions was a process easily understood and appreciated by those without any prior knowledge of galvanism.


Two main approaches to popularizing galvanism existed during the Romantic period, publishing researched theories in scientific treatises and conducting fascinating public demonstrations. Although many treatises regarding galvanism were published during this era, it is evident that the public exhibitions played a more significant role. This can be seen primarily in the demonstrations’ ability to appeal to the less-scholarly audience. Unlike the treatises, the exhibitions were able to relay information regarding galvanism beyond simply the small aristocratic, scientific circles.

In addition, the demonstrations appeared to be so powerful in their role of promoting galvanism, they even exceeded the realm of science and impacted Romantic literature, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. With that being said, it is important to note that the public performances put on by scientists of the period were not necessarily revolutionary in their scientific value; in reality, many of these performers were displaying ideas that were not their own. However, what they lacked in scientific relevance, they more than made up for with their ability to capture public interest.

Finally, as previously identified, scholars Iwan Morus and Joost Mertens recognize a disconnection in the field of galvanism research, but it has been identified and established that public demonstrations were best at popularizing the studies of galvanism in the nineteenth-century in Britain and Europe.


Key Words and Further Readings


A wordle representation of "Shocking Exhibitions: Popularizing Galvanism by the Use of Public Demonstrations in the Early Nineteenth-Century."

Public Demonstrations
Bose, Georg Mathias. "Abstract of a Letter from Monsieur De Bozes." Royal Society Philosophical Transactions. 43 (1745): 420. Print
Georg Mathias Bose was a well known scientist of his time, and performed many experiments in public. He describes in great length many of the effects of his public experiments, including one which electricity creates a "halo" around a suspended body. Exhibitions of suspended human bodies often included religions meanings, such as in this case, in which the illusion of halo appears.

Gray, Stephen. "Two Letters from Mr. Stephen Gray, F.R.S. to C. Mortimer, M.D. Secr. R.S. Containing Farther Accounts of His Experiments concerning Electricity." Philosophical Transactions 37 (1731): 397-409. Print.
In this letter, Stephen Gray uses the human body as a conductor in a series of experiments. One of his experiments include having his subjects hold hands, or be connected to certain objects. As a result, he showed that electricity can flow through multiple objects that act as conductors.

Morus, Iwan. “Galvanic cultures: electricity and life in the early nineteenth century.” 1998.
Morus describes the debate between many scholars between the link of electricity and life. He dwells into the excitement and fears that experimenting on the dead brought up in the early nineteenth century. Morus goes into great detail on the various scholars and their experiments on the dead, and how it attracted people’s attention, such as the Prince of Wales.

Needham, Turbervill. "Extract of a letter from Mr Turbervill Needham to Martin Folkes, Esq: Pr. R.S. concerning Some New Electrical Experiments Lately Made at Paris." Royal Society Philosophical Transactions. 44 (1746-1747): 247-263. Print.
Mr Turbervill goes into great lengths to describe various experiments in Paris, one involving 180 guards in front of the French King. Many of the experiments directed by Abbe Nollet, a French clergyman and physicist, used live subjects doing various motions to demonstrate the force of electricity.

Pilkington, Mark. “Sparks of life.” Oct. 7 2004 (Apr. 29 2010)
A recap of George Foster’s lively animation, led by Giovanni Aldini. While Aldini never said he had been able to bring anyone back to life, there were other scientists who claimed they could.Carl August Weinhold, a german scientist, claimed he could bring animals back from the dead. He ran experiments where he took the spines out of decapitated kittens and replaced them with zinc and sliver pile batteries. According to Weinhold this started their hearts up and kept them abound for a couple minutes.

"Action of Galvanism on the Heart." The British Medical Journal. 2 (Nov. 30, 1861): 583-584. Print.

An Article that focuses on galvanism's effects on the heart. The detailed experiments test various animal hearts that were subjected to various intensities of electricity. As noted in the article, the researches prove to be important since they could be used for resuscitating a failing heart (defribillation).

Animal electricity from Bologna to Boston. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol. 1998 Feb;106(2):94-100. (Apr. 29 2010)
Volta, creator of the battery, refused to believe in the validity of Galvani’s animal electricity experiments. He publicly denounced them across Europe making it harder for Galvani and Aldini to promote public opinion of their studies. Cites some political disagreements as well that are valid to this day. Wraps up with Alexander Forbes, who is very much the contemporary pioneer of electrical activity in our neural systems.

Bird, Golding. Lectures on electricity and galvanism: in their physiological and therapeutical relations. London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1849.
Bird details the lectures he performed in 1847 at the Royal College of Physicians. The book is comprised of five lectures, all explaining principles of galvanism and electricity in relation to physiology and therapeutics, such as the origin of animal electricity, muscular currents, and excitation of heat by muscular contractions.

Gray, Stephen. "An Account on Some New Electrical Experiments." Philosophical Transactions. 31 (1720-1721): 104-107
Stephen Gray reflects on electrical experiments conducted on materials like leather, ox guts and feathers, accounting for the force and the magnitude of the effects. He accounts for different kinds of hair, such as his own, to see if it is capable of conducting electricity and determines some of the materials to be electrical.

Trumpler, Maria. “Verification and Variation: Patterns of Experimentation in Investigations of Galvanism in Germany 1790-1800. “ 1997.
This article goes in detail about the galvanic experimentations in Germany, and how Trumpler found new ways that people experimented. Trumpler describes how she found five types of experiments that shaped the new phenomenon rather than dipping back into theoretical predictions. She also describes how the attempts to make laws or state facts about the experiments were unsuccessful because of the varied results.

Valli, Eusebius. Experiements on animal electricity: with their application to physiology. And some pathological and medical observations. London: J. Johnson, 1793.
Inspired by Luigi Galvani’s discovery of animal electricity, Valli describes his experiments on galvanism and outlines the steps he took to achieve them. In addition to the experiments, Valli explains different aspects of animal electricity, such as the history of electricity and the mechanism of the muscular motions.

Faraday, Michael. "Experimental Researches in Electricity." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Vol. 123, (1833) (pp. 23-54). Print.
Faraday tests different "types of electricity". In this article, he runs a series of tests to research what he believes to be different types of electricity, like common and voltaic electricity. He writes his report on the various attributes of each type, such as tension and magnetism.

Giovanni Aldini: from animal electricity to human brain stimulation. Can J Neurol Sci. 2004 Nov;31(4):576-84. (Apr. 29 2010)
A brief biography on Giovanni Aldini’s life. Born in Bologna in 1762. Physics graduate at the age of 20 from the university of his home town. Newphew and assistant to Galvani, he participated in many of the then popularized animal electricity experiments. Used Volta’s bimetallic pile to apply electrical current to dismembered bodies of animals and humans, creating strong impressions on the public. Laid the ground-work for electro-therapy and was made a knight of the Iron Crown.

Gooday, Graeme. “Domesticating Electricity.” 2008.
Gooday describes pre-World War I Britain and how it evolved into the modern era with the growing uses of electricity and technology. He describes the various views of individuals that believed the growing use of electricity could be a potential threat to domestic order. It also dives into the effects that it had on consumer habits and the division of labor within each household.

Halifax, William Milner. “The Young Man’s Book of Amusement.” 1854.
Halifax gives a brief foundation of what galvanism is, where the battery came from and what it does before diving into the experiments that have been performed by Galvani and his successors. Experiments on smaller animals and humans are detailed.

Singer, George John. Elements of electricity and electro-chemistry. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, A. Brown and R. Triphook, 1814.
Singer explains the phenomena of electricity and all of its discovered powers. He highlights many aspects of electricity and galvanism including Luigi Galvani’s research on animal electricity and the invention of the voltaic battery. In addition, Singer also describes different experiments throughout his book to better explain the aspects of electricity.