Rogue on the Road: Electrifying Research at the Bakken Museum

DailyDose5History is not contained in books–or not merely. A changing and shape-shifting creature, it cannot be understood so well from facsimile, be the pixels ever so clear. We must inhale the dust of ages; we must wander the dim hallways; we must investigate not only the “thing” but its very “thingness.” To understand the story of history (our human story), we must experience the light, the mood, the grandeur, the horror–and it is very difficult to do that from our armchairs. Scholars, like the intrepid adventurers, must saddle up, set sail, set a course. In other words, sometimes, the rogue must rove.

Welcome back to Literary Medicine’s Daily Dose, where we honor, support, and share perspectives about medicine and humanities across cultures and disciplines. This is also the home of the Rogue Scholar Salon and all those brave, bold souls who venture into our intellectual milieu unafraid and unmoored. For today’s post, I will document a recent journey I took to the Bakken, a museum of electrical history (with a fair number of tributes to Ben Franklin–and nearer to my heart–Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.) This foray into our electrifying past proved two things: 1) some journeys are nearer at hand than we realize, and 2) short distances in space can occasion long treks in time.


The Bakken (pronounced /bá-kən/ –“akk” as “awk”) is located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It acquired its name from Earl Bakken, an engineer who pursued his interest in early electricity by establishing a collection. The museum is located in a mansion on the shore of Lake Calhoun; called West Winds, it was designed by Carl Gage and (thankfully) has its own ghost story. An excellent slideshow on the museum is available at Atlas Obsura.

Interestingly, though I’ve lived in Minnesota for three years, I only discovered the museum recently (on a trip back to Cleveland, my once and future home). While visiting with Dr. James Edmonson of the Dittrick Museum, I mentioned that I was researching early electrical theory for my monograph, A Subject Dark and Intricate. He pulled the Bakken site up on his laptop and gave me the name of its curator–a map, as it were: theIMG_8865 journey was set! I did a brief reconnaissance in  be a few months (and a generous travel grant) later before I settled into the upstairs reading room, ready to embark on a mission backward to the time of gaslight and candle wick.

The earliest studies reveal electric fish and the practices of Egyptians, but I limited my scope to the 18th century. In the 18th century, Ben Franklin conducted extensive research in electricity, and the Leyden jar was invented (independently and at roughly the same time) by IMG_8812German cleric Ewald Georg von Kleist and Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek of Leiden (Leyden) circa 1745. But perhaps the most interesting of the discoveries–and one that sparked an incredible dual of scientific personality–involved the concept of animal electricity. Luigi Galvani discovered that a dead frog would leap if struck by a spark, leading him to conclude that animals emitted electricity from their bodies. This was in keeping with his religious sentiment, as only God could “make” the electric lifeIMG_8808 spark. Meanwhile, Alessandro Volta distrusted (and in fact ridiculed) the theory. His own ideas–later known as Volta’s Law of Electrochemical Series–explained that the frogs legs were merely conductors. To prove Galvani wrong, Volta invented the “voltaic pile” or early electric battery by layering types of metals together with a brine.

The contest went on for years, but Galvani’s health declined. After his death, experiments in animal electricity were carried out by his nephew, Giovanni Aldini, who did some rather horrific experiments in an attempt to enliven decapitated corpses. Electrical pulse fired into the body did, in fact, get quite a reaction (and these were public demonstrations), but though the muscles jerked and twitched, the brain was in no way re-animated. Many people suggest that these experiments were influential to Mary Shelley’s work on Frankenstein, but though there is clear evidence that she read IMG_8891Galvani’s work, her interest in Aldini is mainly circumstantial. What it proves, however, for my own work is this: early electrical theory played an important role 1) in the understanding of the body’s boundaries (could a separated head still have an animal-electric connection to its body?) and 2) the Gothic fascination with bodies, body parts, and medical/electrical discovery.

I am not principally concerned with the reanimation of dead corpses, but rather with the tenuous understanding of brain and body, mind and self, self and other that so mystified Enlightenment thinkers. The idea that a body could be electrified–that “dolls” could be made to dance with electrostatic energy–that people could be affected or even cured by electrostatic baths–interests and amazes me. The same time period that saw the rise of Enlightenment also sees a corresponding rise in fear of the unknown–but an interior unknown, a self that becomes alien, a body affected by or even composed of, IMG_8836minute interacting parts. What does this have to do with the Gothic? More than just stitching a composite body, I can tell you! From the early Gothic Romances to the darker stories of Matthew Lewis to the discomfiture of explained supernatural in Ann Radcliffe, these tales engage not only with scientific discovery but also with our increasing desire to understand the greatest of all electrical processors: the human brain.

The Power of Being There

While the digital age makes research a far more cost-effective process that once it was–particularly for the independent scholar–there is nothing quite like being there. It is the difference between reading the quest and going on one–between pouring over manuscripts and holding the artifact in the palm of your hand (above, I hold one of the dancing dolls from the electro-static experiments, tiny, amazing, and fragile). The physicality and the knowledge that other hands touched the same works, the same books, the same coil of wire or spool of thread, affects the imagination. And, as I am concerned principally with the Gothic imagination and the permeability of body boundaries, this is a research experience in itself. The Victorians believed in the possibility of displaced memory–that the past of an object clung to it and could be transferred between persons. Modern theoretical physics suggests we can share atoms with objects–and that we have, by this point of cosmic recycling, inhaled the exhale of Einstein (and of Galvani and Volta). What a marvelous idea that is–and a productive one, too. It leads to unexpected discoveries.

While visiting, I was taken by Assistant Curator Adrian Fischer tIMG_8877o the vault. What is the vault? A trip through time; a compendium of artifacts; a jolly way to spend the afternoon. I relished the shelves of equipment, of leyden jars, of static generators–and there, behind a glass harmonica, was something of which I’ve never seen the like: The Electrostatic Bath. Curtained and curious, this device “bathed” the patient with static electricity, interfering with their electrons in a hair-raising attempt to cure innumerable ills. I knew of these devices–they were studied in France by Truchot–but had only given them passing thought. However, seeing it made me reconsider… Is this perhaps a fruitful avenue for exploring body boundaries in the late 18th century? I plan to re-read several of my sources over the summer, looking for clues. And it would not have occurred to me without the visual, actual, picture of the device itself. I should mention that the same may be said of the Votaic amulet pictured above–these artifacts remind us that science and spiritual speculation were not divided in the past, but rather intertwined and fruitful unions.

And so, it is with much thanks that I leave the Bakken Museum behind–and my heart-felt appreciation for the help of thrIMG_8914ee wonderful people: Adrian (mentioned above), Curator of Books Rachel Howell and Chief Curator for Collections and Exhibits Juliet Burba. Their time, expertise, and collegiality to a researcher (in an April snow-storm, I might add) made the trip as enjoyable as it was worthwhile. If you are aiming to reach back into history, I can make no greater recommendation than this: Go. Do. Visit the collections and–if you are curious about our electrified past–come see the collections of the Bakken Museum!


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