To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we’ve compiled a simple guide to stitching together your own monstrous homunculus. We can take no responsibility for any disastrous chain of events that may unfold from your unholy experiments. Please proceed with caution.
We have only the writings of Herr Victor Von Frankenstein to follow when we set out to build a nameless creature, impart the spark of life, and become a modern Prometheus. Unfortunately, Frankenstein is a little vague on the detail, but he gives us enough clues to work with. There are three main problems you will face:
1. Collecting and storing the parts you’ll need.
As a student of Natural Philosophy at the University of Ingolstadt, Victor Frankenstein had ample access to anatomical specimens, but human parts weren’t enough. Frankenstein also raided the slaughter–house for animal parts:
I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.
It seems likely that Frankenstein needed non-human body parts to offset specific difficulties in the procedure (more on this later). It may also have been because of a lack of particular parts in the right condition — we must remember that Frankenstein needed to work fast. The dead parts he was working with would deteriorate with every passing day.
Turpentine, mercury metal, and mercury salts, were all contemporary solutions to the preservation of anatomical specimens, but as these are all deadly to us they probably aren’t much use for building a living creature. Alcohol was a much more successful preservative and Whisky in particular. In Frankenstein’s time, the University of Edinburgh supplied over twelve gallons of Whisky annually to the anatomy museum. We don’t know if Frankenstein had access to Whisky in Ingolstadt, but he could have concocted his own alcohol based preservative having made extensive study of chemistry:
From this day natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, became nearly my sole occupation.
Cooling could also offer a partial solution. Keeping the body at 40° Fahrenheit or below avoids decomposition, but it’s unlikely that Frankenstein could transport enough ice all the way up to his cell, at the top of the house to maintain that sort of environment. The modern Frankenstein will have significantly better access to cooling equipment. Body parts can now be deep-frozen at −35° Centigrade, and be ready to assemble after thawing for two days and flushing with a saline blood diluent.
2. Assembling the creature.
Surgical techniques up until the late 19th century mostly involved amputating limbs rather than reattaching them. Many people died from surgical procedures because contemporary techniques involved rudimentary stitches that often failed to connect major blood vessels. Here’s where Frankenstein’s use of animal parts will have been an advantage. By scaling up the body with larger animal bones and organs, Frankenstein made the whole process a lot less fiddly:
As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large. After having formed this determination and having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began.
Modern techniques for the repair of nerves and vessels can employ microsurgery aided by an operating microscope. Microsurgery of this kind is now very reliable and occurs in most plastic surgery procedures — including face transplants. However, vessels and nerves of large amputated parts (the arm or forearm, for example) can be reconnected without the need for any magnification.
3. Imparting life!
This is by far the most significant stumbling block you will need to overcome. Frankenstein describes his own success:
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
We can only speculate on the specific instruments he employed, but we do know he was aware of the power of electricity, having witnessed an Oak tree destroyed by lightning at the age of fifteen:
Before this I was not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of electricity. On this occasion a man of great research in natural philosophy was with us, and excited by this catastrophe, he entered on the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to me.
Galvanism was named after the scientist Luigi Galvani who investigated the effect of electricity on dissected animals in the 1780s and 1790s. In 1786, Galvani discovered that when a frog's legs are touched by both a copper probe and a piece of iron at the same time that they twitched as though sparked by an electric current. He eventually realised that this was caused by animal electricity (electricity generated biologically), but it is the work of Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, that would have especially fired Frankenstein's imagination. In 1803, Aldini electrically stimulated the limbs of a deceased prisoner at Newgate Prison. The Newgate Calendar describes the effect:
On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.
Frankenstein somehow jump–started his creation. Early batteries were sufficient for experimental purposes, but in practice their voltages fluctuated and they couldn’t provide a large current for sustained periods. The voltages required to restart a heart can range from 200 to 1,700 volts and you may need far more energy to fully animate your creation. A bolt of lightning can deliver up to one billion volts of electricity, which is certain to disastrously overcook your creature, so you will need to find a comfortable middle–ground. As we’ve established, Frankenstein was foremost a chemist, so we cannot rule out chemical processes or a combination of chemistry and lower voltages. I’m afraid you may need to apply a little trial and error to find a working solution.
If you can bring your creature to life you will still have to solve the problem of tissue rejection. The Scottish surgeon John Hunter (one of the most famous anatomists of Frankenstein’s time) conducted a series of experiments transplanting material between animals of the same and different species, apparently with success. The modern Frankenstein will of course have access to immunosuppressants that the 18th Century Frankenstein could only dream of, but these need to be continually topped up and will leave the creature open to infection. Be prepared to deliver a constant cocktail of immunosuppressants and antibiotics to your creation.
A salutary warning...
Before you undertake this procedure, consider the responsibility of bringing such a golem to life. Frankenstein was not initially pleased with his results:
Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.
Frankenstein’s rejection of his hideous offspring would eventually lead to his own destruction. His scientific endeavours gave birth to a living being, but it was the creature’s abandonment that created a monster. Let us leave the last words to Frankenstein’s creation:
You, who call Frankenstein your friend, seem to have a knowledge of my crimes and his misfortunes. But in the detail which he gave you of them he could not sum up the hours and months of misery which I endured wasting in impotent passions. For while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were for ever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?
You have been warned.