Today, Mary Shelley will speak in my place. 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.
Let's listen as Mary Shelley
tells, in her own voice, how she invented Victor
Frankenstein and his monster. The date was 1816.
Mary Shelley was only 19. And she offers us a
theory of invention along with the history of her
"Everything," she begins, "must have a beginning.
That beginning must be linked to something that
went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant
to support it, but the elephant stands on a
tortoise. Invention [is not created] out of the
void, but out of chaos. The materials must first be
And what were the materials she worked with? She
"Many and long were the conversations between Lord
Byron and Shelley. During one of these, the
principle of life [was discussed -- whether it
could ever be] discovered. They talked of the
experiments of Dr. Darwin who preserved a piece of
vermicelli till by some extraordinary means it
began to move ... "
"Perhaps a corpse [could] be re-animated; galvanism
[hints of] such things: perhaps the component parts
of a creature might be manufactured, brought
together, and endued with vital warmth."
In the most arresting part of her account, Mary
Shelley tells how her story formed from the chaos
of their converations.
"Night waned upon this [talk." She says, "Even] the
witching hour had gone by. When I placed my head on
my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to
think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and
guided me, gifting the successive images that arose
in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual
bounds of reverie. I saw -- with shut eyes, but
acute mental vision, -- [a pale] student of the
unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had
put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man
stretched out, and then, on the working of some
powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with
an uneasy, half vital motion."
And how would Victor Frankenstein react? She tells
"Success would terrify [him. He would rush] from
his odious handy-work, horror stricken. He would
hope that slight spark of life would fade; that
this thing would subside into dead matter."
"[He falls into] sleep; but he [wakes]. The horrid
thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains,
and looking at him with yellow, watery, but
We experience a moment of detachment just before
sleep. As Mary Shelley reached that moment, she was
still replaying the evening's conversation in her
mind. Suddenly, bits of talk fused into the most
perfect tale of horror ever written. Just as sleep
came to her, Victor Frankenstein blinked awake,
transfixed by the same brooding gaze that has held
us all -- ever since.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds