Today, we call up one of our favorite nightmares.
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.
thirteen years old 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 a wintry night, with a
full moon flickering through naked branches
whipping in the wind, and I tell you I was flat-out
frightened to death. What makes the Frankenstein
story such a powerful part of our folklore? Why is
it so much more than just one more movie plot --
seen and forgotten?
Mary Godwin, soon to become Percy Shelley's wife,
wrote it in the Summer of 1816 when she and
Shelley and other
members of Lord Byron's
hippie entourage vacationed with Byron in
Switzerland. Mary was the 19-year-old daughter of a
noted feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.
The group talked about creating a modern Gothic
novel and agreed they'd each have a go at it. Mary
was the only one who really succeeded, and she gave
us the book Frankenstein, or the Modern
It was a brilliant piece of work for someone so
young. But it came out of a hotbed of
post-industrial-revolution intellectuals, steeped
in a rising concern over what science and
industrialization were doing to the world.
Her young protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, tells
us early on that
My reluctant steps led me to M. Krempe,
professorAnd under Krempe's instruction,
Frankenstein's Faustian quest for knowledge takes him
to the terrifying secret of life. His product, the
monster, is more articulate, more intelligent, and
more able to feel pain than his human maker. The
monster produced by Frankenstein's intelligence and
creative drive had Frankenstein's intelligence and
sensibilities, but in a kind of grotesque parody. In
a curious way, Frankenstein and his monster merge
of natural philosophy, an uncouth man, but
imbued in the secrets of his science.
Mary Shelley was unmistakably talking about the
science-based technology of her day. The subject
interested her. Later in her life she wrote
biographies of famous scientists for Dionysius
Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Her
Frankenstein expressed her recognition of the
dangers that lay in our new powers.
In retrospect, I had reason to be frightened as I
scuttled home that night. Mary Shelley had summoned
up a monster that can be found in any of us -- the
monster that Victor Frankenstein released when he
let himself be obsessed by technical knowledge. In
the end, the monster portrayed his obsessiveness.
In the end, science and engineering can serve human
needs only insofar as engineers and scientists
learn to know and control themselves.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds