A Brief History of Transhumanism Pt. 4

Victor Frankenstein, Galvani, Aldini, Andre Ure, Johann Dippel,  — all transhumanists?  Let us investigate.

The late 18th and early 19th century in Europe was full of optimism.  The newly discovered energy, electricity had in the minds of many the potential for bringing about many things.  To some, it even had the power of resurrecting the dead.

Animal Electricity,  the Dead & Frankenstein
Most of us know of the famous novel by Mary Shelley named Frankenstein.  What many may not know is the influence of Johann Conrad Dippelin the creation of the Frankenstein story.  Dippel who registered in the university at Giessen, Germany Dippel of Frankenstein, was an alchemist who had devised such chemical brews as “Berliner Blau” and “Dippel’s elixirum vitae.”  Local legends stated that he had experimented with pieces of dismembered corpses.  Although the normal story is that Shelley came up with this story in a dream, there is strong reason to believe that her dreams had been influenced by things she had been reading as well as her visit to this castle.  She described the castle as,

A monumental building, full of darkness; broken walls, mysterical-mighty in the sobering Novembermist – but wonderful shining under the bright moon.  Allowing an amazing country-view over the Rhine-river to the blue mountains on the other side of the river and a church to be seen over the silver shining waters.

“…science has…bestowed upon man powers which may be called creative; which have enabled him to change and modify the beings around him…”
— Humphry Davy
Elements of Chemical Philosophy, 1812

Dippel had been influenced by a famous lecture published in 1802 by Humphry Davy titled, A Discourse, Introductory To A Course Of Lectures On Chemistry.  This document captured perfectly the spirit of the times.  In the novel Frankenstein, Shelley put Davy’s words into the mouth of the fictional professor Waldman whom Victor Frankenstein studied under.  Waldman’s words burned in Frankenstein’s mind,

The ancient teachers of this science, said he, ‘promised impossibilities and performed nothing.  The modern masters promise very little’ they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera.  But these philosophers, whose hands seem only to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles.  They penetrate into the recesses of Nature, and show how she works in her hiding-places.  They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe.  They have acquired new and almost unlimited Powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquakes, and even much the invisible world with its own shadow.

Andre Ure, a Scottish doctor and chemist also experimented with electricity.  In 1818, Ure conducted some experiments on a hanged criminal named Matthew Clydesdale.  Be believed that he could revive the dead corpse in cases of suffocation, drowning or hanging.  In an article published in 1819, in the Journal of Science, Vol. 6, 283-294, titled ,An Account of Some Experiments Made On The Body Of A Criminal Immediately After Execution, With Physiological And Practical Observations, he states,

Every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements resembling a violent shuddering from cold. … On moving the second rod from hip to heel, the knee being previously bent, the leg was thrown out with such violence as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain tried to prevent its extension. The body was also made to perform the movements of breathing by stimulating the phrenic nerve and the diaphragm. When the supraorbital nerve was excited ‘every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expressions in the murderer’s face, surpassing far the wildest representations of Fuseli or a Kean. At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted.

Ure bled the corpse, so as not to take the chance of bringing him back to life.  If this had happened, Ure would have been imprisoned for contempt of court, by reviving a man who had been condemned to death.  Ure even believed that this process might be used to produce automatons that could work in the newly built factories of England.

“Sweet is the lore which Nature brings:
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things: –
We murder to dissect.”
The Tables Turned,
William Wordsworth

Luigi Galvani was another scientist working on the idea that electricity might revive the dead.  Mary Shelley speculated on the powers of galvanism as it was then called.  She stated,

Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with a vital warmth.

Some began to believe that the use of electricity could produce immortality.  Galvani and the others mentioned in this article were not the only men doing experiments.  Other lesser known men were doing similar experiments all over Europe.  Many criminals were used for these experiments.  Even with this, there were not enough bodies for the many experiments that were being done all over Europe.


Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of Luigi Galvani, assisted his uncle in experimentation on dead animals and humans.   He was more flamboyant then his uncle and carried out dramatic demonstrations all over Europe and especially in London.  The description by eyewitnesses is startling,

Aldini, after having cut off the head of a dog, passed the current of a strong battery: the mere contact triggers truly frightful convulsions.  The mouth opens, teeth rattle, eye roll in their sockets; and if reason did not deter the agitated imagination, one would almost believe that the animal is again suffering and alive.

In the end, whether or not these men accomplished their dreams is not what is important.  What matters is that they HAD a dream.  That dream being the same one as today’s modern transhumanists – a liberation from the limits of our present human condition.

We include some videos on a series done several years ago named In Search of Frankenstein that will help us explain the prototypes of some transhumanist ideas.


1 Response

  1. GK says:

    What is the actual definition of transhumanism?

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