On 25 April 1801 the 22 year old Humphry Davy delivered his first public lecture at the Royal Institution (RI) in Albemarle Street Mayfair. The handsome and romantic young Cornishman had already made his name via his dramatic public experiments in Bristol, not least demonstrating the effects of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) on himself and willing young ladies. He was employed by the RI to help make the reputation of the new institution to attain the objective of making science more publicly accessible.
Davey’s first public experiment in Albemarle Street was on galvanism, causing movement in a dead frog using electricity. It was only a short step to consider what running an electrical current through a dead human body would look like. In 1803 executed criminal George Foster from Newgate Prison, had just this done to him (not by Humphry Davy!). Reports of the day stated,
“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”
Further down Albemarle Street stands the publisher Murray & Co, originally founded in 1768, it moved to its current Mayfair address in 1812. Five years later an unknown author submitted her manuscript to Murray & Co., which was promptly rejected. This was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus. Victor Frankenstein uses electricity to reanimate a stolen corpse, and while the cheerful, dashing Davy inspired what little science there was in Frankenstein he was quite unlike the remorseful and gloomy Dr Frankenstein.
Albemarle Street is famously London’s first one-way street. Due to the hordes who packed out Davy’s RI lectures the congestion was terrible, and having the carriages arrive from one direction was a logical solution to ease the problem.
This part of London is full of literature’s monsters. St James’s Square’s London Library provided much of the research for Dracula, while Dr Jekyll’s house lies in Soho. But you will need to join my Scientists and Monsters walking tour to learn more!