Campus & Community

The spark behind ‘Frankenstein’

Video by Ned Brown and Kai-Jae Wang/Harvard Staff

2 min read

Monstrous Electrical Show demos scientific instruments from Shelley’s day as part of Frankenweek

A demonstration of the kind of old-time electricity shows that may have inspired “Frankenstein” will have sparks flying in the Science Center on Halloween.

For the Monstrous Electrical Show, part of Harvard’s weeklong celebration of the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s book, Daniel Rosenberg will crank up a Wimshurst machine to generate 120,000-volt sparks. But he’ll skip a grisly feature of some 19th-century electrical shows.

“[They] would sometimes take the corpse of an executed criminal and use machines like this to make it twitch, just to wow and amaze the audience,” says Rosenberg, who supports faculty by running science experiments during lectures.

“That is something that we would never dream of doing today, but at that time it would certainly have captured the imagination of someone like Mary Shelley.”

A sneak peek of Monstrous Electrical Show.

Rosenberg’s colleague Daniel Davis will set up a modern-day equivalent of the Tesla coil to create sparks that make music. In this case, he’ll play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

“Nikola Tesla is renowned for creating the Tesla coil, which is actually the backbone of all wireless communication,” Davis said. “Back in the late 1800s, his original idea wasn’t for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi — it was for wireless power transmission. While that wasn’t feasible over large distances as he’d envisioned, startups today are successfully doing it over close range.”

Davis’ demonstration uses MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), developed in the late 1970s for the recording industry. Instead of storing songs note for note, MIDI protocols store them as commands.

“There are no speakers,” Davis said. “Instead, the sparks themselves are the speaker — so what you’re hearing is musical thunder.”

The Monstrous Electrical Show will feature more than a dozen experiments, using equipment such as a Leyden jar and Van de Graaff machine. The show takes place at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in Lecture Hall D at the Science Center and is sponsored by the Department of the History of Science and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture.