Today, we consider a favorite nightmare. 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 only thirteen 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 late autumn with a full
moon flickering through naked branches whipping in
the wind. And I was flat-out frightened to death.
What gives the Frankenstein story that kind of
power? Why is it so much more than just another
movie plot to be seen and forgotten?
Mary Godwin, soon to be Percy Shelley's wife,
gave us the book,
Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, in
the summer of 1816. She, Shelley, and other members of
Lord Byron's freewheeling
crew vacationed with Byron in Switzerland. Mary was
the nineteen-year-old daughter of the famous
feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the
anarchist William Godwin. The group talked about
creating a modern Gothic novel. They agreed they'd
each have a go at writing one. Mary was the only
one who really succeeded.
For someone so young to hand us a creature of such
power was astonishing. But it came out of a hotbed
of post-industrial-revolution intellectuals,
steeped in a morbid fascination with the way
science and industrialization were transforming
Mary's antihero, young Victor Frankenstein, tells
us, early in the book, that,
My reluctant steps led me to M. Krempe,
professor of philosophy, an uncouth man, but deeply
imbued in the secrets of his science.
Under Krempe's instruction, Frankenstein's Faustian
quest for knowledge takes him to the terrifying
secret of life. What that secret is, we're not sure
-- although it's clearly kin to the new electrical
science of Franklin, Volta, Davy and Faraday.
His product, the monster, is more articulate, more
intelligent, more able to feel pain than its human
maker. The monster spawned by Frankenstein's
intelligence and creative drive had Frankenstein's
intelligence and sensibilities, but in a grotesque
parody. And so Frankenstein and his monster merge
Mary Shelley was unmistakably talking about the
science-based technology of her day. The subject
drew her in. Later in her life she wrote
biographies of famous scientists for Dionysius
Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Her
Frankenstein voiced a recognition of the dangers
lying in our new powers.
So I had reason to be frightened, scuttling home
that night. Mary Shelley had summoned up a demon
living in all of us. It was the demon that Victor
Frankenstein released when he let technical
knowledge turn into obsession. His monster was his
Scientists are usually pretty sane people.
Shelley's story reminds us what damage we do if we
drop the discipline that keeps us sane -- the
discipline that keeps our work rooted in the joy of
simple curiosity -- the discipline that keeps the
monster at bay.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Shelley, M., Frankenstein; or The Modern
Prometheus. (1831 edition, edited by M. K.
Joseph). London: Oxford University Press, 1969.
You may also click on the first appearance of the
title (third paragraph above) to find the complete
text of another edition of Frankenstein on line.
This is a heavily revised version of Episode 41.
See also the following related Engines
episodes: 129, 382, 462,
642, 773, 853,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.
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