Giovanni Aldini, born in 1762 in Bologna, Italy, was a pioneering physicist and the nephew of the renowned Luigi Galvani. He followed in his uncle’s footsteps, becoming a professor of physics at the University of Bologna in 1798. Aldini’s work primarily focused on galvanism, a branch of science exploring the effects of electricity on biological systems. His research went beyond theoretical study; he sought to find practical applications, particularly in the field of medicine. He also conducted groundbreaking experiments aimed at protecting human life from the devastating impact of fire.
Aldini’s contributions to science did not go unnoticed. The Emperor of Austria honored him with the prestigious title of Knight of the Iron Crown, a reflection of the significance of his work and its impact on scientific understanding during his time.
But it wasn’t just in academic circles where Aldini made a name for himself; he was also a master of public spectacle. He embarked on extensive tours across Europe, staging dramatic demonstrations that showcased the awe-inspiring power of electricity. These were not mere academic lectures but extraordinary theatrical events, akin to a traveling science circus. He used high-powered batteries to electrify both human and animal cadavers, bringing them startlingly close to life in front of captivated audiences.
In 1802, Aldini took his electrifying show to London, delivering a performance that left an indelible impression on the city. During this London engagement, he ramped up the spectacle by electrically stimulating the heads and trunks of various animals, including horses, sheep, cows, and dogs. These demonstrations not only awed spectators but also pushed the boundaries of what was considered scientifically possible at the time.
Giovanni Aldini was more than a scientist; he was a showman, an innovator, and a visionary whose work left a lasting legacy. He bridged the gap between scientific research and public fascination, making complex subjects accessible and thrilling to people from all walks of life. Through his academic contributions and public demonstrations, Aldini helped shape the scientific discourse of his era, laying the groundwork for many of the technological advancements that would follow. He passed away in 1834, but his influence on both science and public perception of it remains immeasurable to this day.
The people witnessing this reported that the animals’ jaws and eyes started moving almost as if they were alive. However, his most famous public demonstrations of the electro-stimulation technique of deceased limbs were performed on the executed criminal George Forster at Newgate in London in 1803.
Anatomical dissection had formed part of Forster’s death sentence.
“Before a large medical and general audience, he took a pair of conducting rods linked to a powerful battery, and touched the rods to various parts of the body in turn. The results were dramatic. When the rods were applied to Forster’s mouth and ear, “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.” When one rod was moved to touch the rectum, the whole body convulsed: indeed, the movements were “so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation”. And so it went on, with Aldini moving the two rods around the body in different combinations like a switchboard operator. According to newspaper reports of the time, some of the spectators genuinely believed that the body was about to come to life, and were suitably awestruck even though it did not happen. But Aldini himself gave no indication that he expected any such thing – although he did describe his ultimate aim as learning how to “command the vital powers.” In practice, he confined himself to concluding that galvanism “exerted a considerable power over the nervous and muscular systems.” He also noted that nothing could be done with the heart.“
Mr. Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.
“The jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened … The action even of those muscles furthest distant from the points of contact with the arc was so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation … vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not rendered it impossible.”
“Galvanism was communicated by means of three troughs combined together, each of which contained forty plates of zinc, and as many of copper. On the first application of the arcs the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.”
“The first of these decapitated criminals being conveyed to the apartment provided for my experiments, in the neighbourhood of the place of execution, the head was first subjected to the Galvanic action. For this purpose, I had constructed a pile consisting of a hundred pieces of silver and zinc. Having moistened the inside of the ears with salt water, I formed an arc with two metallic wires, which, proceeding from the two ears, were applied, one to the summit and the other to the bottom of the pile. When this communication was established, I observed strong contractions in the muscles of the face, which were contorted in so irregular a manner that they exhibited the appearance of the most horrid grimaces. The action of the eye-lids was exceedingly striking, though less sensible in the human head than in that of an ox.”
Aldini was among the first to treat mentally ill patients with shocks to the brain, reporting complete electrical cures for a number of mental illnesses.
Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it, China-underground.com, Weirditaly.com and RetroFuturista.com.