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Cartoon of a galvanised corpse

In biology, galvanism is the contraction of a muscle that is stimulated by an electric current. In physics and chemistry, it is the induction of electrical current from a chemical reaction, typically between two chemicals with differing electronegativites.


The effect was named by Alessandro Volta after his contemporary, the scientist Luigi Galvani, who investigated the effect of electricity on dissected animals in the 1780s and 1790s. Galvani himself referred to the phenomenon as animal electricity, believing that he had discovered a distinct form of electricity. Volta, on the other hand, claimed that the reputed animal electricity was due to an interaction between the metals used to mount and dissect the frog's leg, and in 1800, before the Royal Society in London, announced the Voltaic Cell or pile, essentially the battery.

The modern study of galvanic effects in biology is called electrophysiology, the term galvanism being used only in historical contexts. The term is also used to describe the bringing to life of organisms using electricity, as shown in Mary Shelley's work Frankenstein (which was influenced by galvanism) and people still speak of being 'galvanized into action'.

Many Victorian scientists believed that if the right amount of electricity was charged into the brain, the corpse would come back to life.

Experiments in Galvanism

The concept of galvanism was recently explored in contemporary art by Canadian artist Garnet Hertz, with his piece Experiments in Galvanism. A miniature web server was implanted in the body of a frog specimen, which was suspended in a clear glass container. Through an ethernet cable connected to the embedded web server, remote viewers could trigger movement in either the right or left leg of the frog, thereby updating Luigi Galvani's original 1786 experiment causing the legs of a dead frog to twitch simply by touching muscles and nerves with metal.

Although true galvanic action is not taking place -- two small motors/actuators physically move the frog's legs -- the project attempts to draw a parallel between the excitement that galvanism caused in contemporary culture in the era of Mary Shelly and the excitement that internet technologies generated at the turn of the 21st century.


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