Ada Lovelace Day: Mary Shelley

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, in which people are asked to write about “women excelling in technology.”

There are several women I could have written about. I could have written about my former housemate Chris Ruotolo, for instance, who teaches XML courses — we were in the same group in Jerry McGann and Pat Spacks’s class on “The Novel of Sensibility” back in 1995 (gulp), which, I’ll have you know, was where I wrote my very first web page. (Sadly, the links are all broken now: this was before I knew about relative links, and the site has moved.) I could have written about my former supervisor Kristin Antelman, who was the best manager I’ve ever had, who makes sure that the NCSU Libraries continues to build cool stuff, and who showed that people cite scholarly articles that are on the open web more often than articles that aren’t on the open web (amazing that it needed to be proven, but it did). I could have written about technology journalist Molly Wood, who demands daily that the filthy capitalist dogs at the technology companies take some freaking heed of the public good once in awhile.

However, I’ve chosen to write about Mary Shelley: Mary Shelley, who, in 1816, when she was 19 years old, wrote Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus (1818). If you concede that Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel (and many do), then it’s certainly worth honoring Mary Shelley on Ada Lovelace day. And, of course, Mary was married to Percy Bysshe Shelley, who’s in the Most Famous Romantic Poets club with Byron, and Byron was there at the famed Swiss gathering where Mary began Frankenstein — and Byron was Ada Lovelace’s father.

I can’t write anything about Mary Shelley beyond what’s on the Wikipedia page, and I haven’t read the novel in years (as I recall it was rather turgid, sad to say), but this occasion has led to some pleasant idling around on the Internet, and I figure I can show you what I found.

For instance, did you know that Thomas Edison’s motion picture company made a Frankenstein movie in 1910? I happened to know this because back when I was in college, my uncle Bob David did a remake of it titled “Edison’s Frankenstein.” I helped him out with band-aids and safety pins, thus earning my only IMDB credit (to date). At the time, there was no way to get hold of the actual film — but now you can see Edison’s 1910 version of Frankenstein on the Internet Archive:

I mean, that is some great stuff. Terrific special effects in the creation scene; kinda looks like they burned something and then rolled the film backward. The monster is very creepy looking, and how about that explicit moral with the mirror trick?

I also located an image of a page from Mary Shelley’s original manuscript:

Really clear handwriting. You wouldn’t believe how terrible lots of nineteenth-century handwriting is. I did some research on Mary Somerville back in grad school (another great heroine of science), and I had to really work to read her writing. I agree, Mary: “beautiful” is much more effective than “handsome,” there, and “yellow skin” is much better than “dun skin.”

I also browsed through one of the original reviews of Frankenstein, which appeared in the Quarterly Review, and which called the book “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity.” They just did not mince words back then. Interesting choice, that word “tissue” — wonder if the reviewer (who remained anonymous) meant to evoke the medical sense of the term. No one knew that the author was a woman, by the way, so you can’t attribute that blunt opinion to sexism.

Finally, I did a search for the word “science” in the book itself, which produced some interesting results. At one point, Frankenstein’s college professor advises him as follows:

“If your wish is to become really a man of science, and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics” (66).

This made me think of Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air, which I’ve just finished; Johnson argues that Joseph Priestley was a bit of a petty experimentalist but that he, and everyone, nevertheless benefited greatly from the innate interdisciplinarity of the era. Shelley got her inspiration for Frankenstein, by the way, from some experiments with electrocuting worms that Erasmus Darwin did, and Erasmus Darwin was an intellectual contemporary and crony of Priestley’s. There’s also this:

None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder. (68)

Yeah, I don’t really believe that. I think in all studies there’s “continual food for discovery and wonder.” However, I am mollified by the rather interesting discovery that when we stop getting the story in Dr. Frankenstein’s voice and start getting it in the monster’s voice (did you know that? that the monster narrates part of the story in eloquent Enlightenment prose? It was a shock to me when I first read the book, I’ll tell you.) — in any case, as I was saying, when the monster begins to write, he starts referring to language as a “science”:

So soon as he had finished, the youth began, not to play, but to utter sounds that were monotonous, and neither resembling the old man’s instrument nor the songs of the birds: I since found that he read aloud, but at that time I knew nothing of the science of words or letters. (155)

Sevearl times, the creature refers to language, to speaking, to writing, as a science. Imagine that.

Imagine this, too: no Frankenstein. Without Frankenstein, maybe no “mad scientist” trope in fifties B movies. Without Frankenstein, maybe no “Rossum’s Universal Robots (R. U. R.)” and no I, Robot from Asimov. Without Frankenstein, maybe no Jurassic Park.

Without Frankenstein, maybe no reminder that science and technology and even language, for all their wonders, have their horrors too.