Engines of Our Ingenuity
No. 1337: FRANKENSTEIN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1337.

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 their world.

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 together.

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 obsessiveness.

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 work.

(Theme music)


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. Lienhard.

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