I’m in the home stretch of Lazhechnikov’s Ледяной дом (The ice house), and I just hit a sentence that took me aback. Poor beleaguered Marioritsa, the princess of mysterious origins beloved of Empress Anna and of the patriotic but besotted (and married) Volynsky, has received yet another blow from fate and had yet another fainting fit: “Когда княжна была приведена в чувство и государыня оставила ее в ее спальне, уверенная, что ей лучше, горничная ее Груня наэлектризовала ее одним прикосновением к руке” [When the princess had been brought round and the empress had left her in her bedroom, confident that she was feeling better, her maid Grunya electrified her with one touch of her hand]. Electrified her! In 1835? I mean, I know Ben Franklin was tying keys to kites in lightning storms in the 1750s, but I hadn’t realized it had settled into metaphorical usage quite that early. Sure enough, the Corpus of the Russian Language shows this as the earliest literary use in Russian, but the OED takes it much further back in English:

1. trans.
a. To charge with electricity; to pass an electric current through; (formerly also) †to subject (a person) to an electric current or an electric shock for therapeutic purposes (obs.).
1745 Philos. Trans. 1744–5 (Royal Soc.) 43 490, I procur’d an iron Bar..; this I electrified lying on Cakes of Wax and Resin. […]
1818 S. Ferrier Marriage x. 104 That old man has the palsy; why don’t you electrify him? […]
3. trans. fig. To excite, arouse, or startle (a person), as if by an electric charge or shock. Also intr.
1748 E. Moore Foundling ii. vi. 25, I can electrify her by a Look.
1794 W. Burke & E. Burke tr. J. P. Brissot To his Constituents 72 Those heights of courage which electrify an army and ensure victory.
1838 J. H. Ingraham Burton I. 184 The touch of his bold lip electrified her. […]


  1. Static electricity, after all, has been well-known probably since the invention of the rug, or indeed the invention of the cat. The demonstration of rubbing elektron (Greek, ‘amber’) with cat’s-fur and getting small objects to stick to it, goes back to Thales of Miletus (ca. 600 BCE). Electrum, the alloy of gold and silver, is so named from its resemblance in color to amber.

  2. From the WiPe on electricity:

    Electricity would remain little more than an intellectual curiosity for millennia until 1600, when the English scientist William Gilbert made a careful study of electricity and magnetism, distinguishing the lodestone effect from static electricity produced by rubbing amber. He coined the New Latin word electricus (“of amber” or “like amber”, from ήλεκτρον [elektron], the Greek word for “amber”) to refer to the property of attracting small objects after being rubbed. This association gave rise to the English words “electric” and “electricity”, which made their first appearance in print in Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica of 1646.

    In 1791, Luigi Galvani published his discovery of bioelectricity, demonstrating that electricity was the medium by which nerve cells passed signals to the muscles.

    I think I have read about public demonstrations of physics phenomena throughout the 18C in England and Europe, particularly electricity and magnetism. I hope someone here can produce more historical details.
    From the Wipe on Elektrizität:

    Um 1663 entwickelte der Magdeburger Bürgermeister Otto von Guericke eine drehbare Schwefelkugel, die mit der Hand gerieben die kosmischen Wirkkräfte (virtutes mundanae) nachweisen sollte. Gezielt zum Erforschen elektrischer Wirkungen entwickelte Francis Hauksbee 1706 eine Reibungselektrisiermaschine, deren Kugel nicht mehr aus Schwefel, sondern aus Glas gebaut war. Diese und ähnliche Elektrisiermaschinen dienten in den Folgejahrzehnten vor allem der gesellschaftlichen Belustigung.

    Galvani’s discoveries in particular electrified the public imagination. A sudden shock of surprise, a little electric shock, a tingling of excitement – how similar they feel ! Not to mention being stuck dumb by a blinding insight. We have this remembrance by Mary Shelley:

    “It proved a wet, ungenial summer”, Mary Shelley remembered in 1831, “and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house”. Amongst other subjects, the conversation turned to the experiments of the 18th-century natural philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin, who was said to have animated dead matter, and to galvanism and the feasibility of returning a corpse or assembled body parts to life.

    Petit Robert gives 1736 as the earliest known date of électriser (ATILF: 1re attest. 1738 (Hist. de l’Acad. des sc., p. 97 ds DG)), and a later quote from Chateaubriand:

     Fig. (1763) Animer, pousser à l’action, en produisant une impression vive, exaltante. => enflammer, exalter, exciter, galvaniser, transporter. L’orateur avait électrisé son auditoire. « elle était faite pour électriser le monde et pour créer des séides » (Chateaubriand). — P. p. adj. « Il fondit le premier sur les Arabes, et ses gens électrisés le suivirent » (Balzac).

    Also from the ATILF:

    Tous sont frappés et remués de ses progrès et de son audace d’esprit; en l’entendant, le laborieux mais pesant Baïf s’électrise et ne rêve plus qu’innovations (SAINTE-BEUVE, Tabl. poés. fr., 1828, p. 64).

  3. Galvani thought that he discovered some sort of a vital force (since his electricity came from a severed frog leg, and made it move as if it was alive), and electricity from voltaic elements shorted through the human bodies continued to be thought of as a cutting-edge healing technology for quite some time in late XVIII and early XIX c.

  4. Electricity was employed as a medical therapy until late in the 19th century. Walt Whitman’s physician tried it, for instance, after a stroke left Whitman hemiplegic in 1873.
    And don’t forget Christopher Smart’s Cat Jeoffry ca. 1760:
    For by stroking of him I have found out electricity,
    For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire,
    For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.

  5. Galvani’s observations indicated both the role of electricity in stimulating muscular activity and the possibility of generating electricity by putting two metals in a suitable solution. It took a while to sort this out. It was confusing that two metals and a dead frog’s leg made electricity which in turn stimulated the leg to twitch.

  6. It took a while to sort this out.
    Yes. The Wipe offers an anachronistic summary of what Galvani did: “In 1791, Luigi Galvani published his discovery of bioelectricity, demonstrating that electricity was the medium by which nerve cells passed signals to the muscles.” My guess is that he had no notion of “bioelectricity”. I am fairly certain that he had none of “nerve cells” or “signals”.

  7. I should put that more carefully: my guess is that Galvani did not use an Italian etymological equivalent of the word “bioelectricity”. Obviously he had a notion similar to what is today called bioelectricity. The WiPe article on him says he introduced the idea of “animal electricity”. and that “Volta built the first battery in order to specifically disprove his associate’s theory [of animal electric fluid]”.
    But I don’t think there was a generally accepted concept of “nerve cells” in 1791. Only in the late 19C did the 19C controversy about “cells” subside. As for “signals”, this is surely a post-Shannon and post-1950s-biology concept.

  8. O je … De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari Commentarius => a Latin etymological equivalent … empty took no risks with his general remark “it took a while to sort this out”. My objection to the WiPe phrasing is that it makes it sound as if it did not take a while to sort things out.

  9. Volta built the first battery
    Very likely. But it’s possible the Baghdad Battery beat him by a millennium or more.

  10. tetri_tolia says

    “Google” became a verb in how many years, three? Two?

  11. Electricity is still employed as medical therapy. Direct current therapy is upwardly trending these days and electroshock therapy is still applied. Neither have widely accepted physiological explanations.

  12. Stu, you could edit the bits about Galvani and Volta in that Wipe article.

  13. I think “signal” along nerves would have made sense by the time of the telegraph. So Sömmerring would have understood that phrasing, since he also had some inkling of nervous cells from microscopy.

  14. Quacks, and people suffering a lapse in taste, used ‘electricity’ as Woo-woo the way we use ‘quantum mechanics’. Shelley’s use of ‘electrical attraction’ is one reason TS Elliot said ‘he is not to be read, but inhaled through a gas pipe’.

  15. Lionel Trilling

  16. Google was founded in 1998; the verb form “googling” first appears in COCA in 2002.

  17. I think “signal” along nerves would have made sense by the time of the telegraph.
    Would have made sense … well, yes, if a time traveller from 2013 went back to explain it to them. What I doubt is that in 1791 Galvani or his contemporaries in actual fact used the notion of “signalling” to explain the function of electricity in muscle movement. The question can be answered by simple inspection of the published texts, without any time travelling.
    Unfortunately, if they had relied on such an explanation, they would have been partly in error. Today’s state of knowledge, as far as I know, is that many muscles are excited by chemical impulses. Heart muscles tend to be excited by electrical impulses.

  18. Language, part of the problem may be semantic. English “electrify” has far broader meaning than Russian “наэлектризовать”; the former is frequently used in the context of modern technologies, of electric transportation, high-voltage fences, etc. In contrast, Russian “наэлектризовать” has a very narrow, and very old, meaning: “to charge by static electricity, usually by touching / rubbing”.
    For electric-technology words in Russian, as it is typical with technology-verbs, the old Russian suffix “-ов” is replaced by German suffix “-ir”, as in “электрифицировать” (e.g., электрифицировать железную дорогу)
    Grumbly – in biological systems, chemical gradients and flows are exactly equivalent to electric voltages and currents (because electricity is carried by ions, and voltage may be maintained only across biomembranes). It is true that in metals and semiconductors, electric current is a motion of electrons, but the living creatures aren’t build of these types of materials…

  19. Russian suffix “-ов” is replaced by German suffix “-ir”
    sorry, supplanted rather than replaced. Sometimes it results in a real pile-up of native and foreign suffixes, as in “яровизировать” (Sic!) but the point is that those -ir’s are always added to make it sound “more scientific / more modern”.

  20. AAAgh! Lionel Trilling! It is YOU!

  21. Nobody expects Lionel Trilling!

  22. David Derbes says

    The Galvani-Volta dispute very probably led to at least the suggestion in Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein” that electricity was to be used to reanimate the pieced-together corpse. The actual methods used are not described in the text (lest they be “repeated”) but there is I think secondary evidence that Percy Shelley and his new love were very well aware of recent scientific developments. Evidently there was some effort made, following Galvani’s misunderstandings, to revive dead animals with electricity. The extent to which the English writers of the early nineteenth century were fascinated by science is very well documented by Richard Holmes in his “The Age of Wonder”, a really interesting book. Most of us know or have seen the Karloff “Frankenstein” film in which lightning does the job; this seems to be an invention of Hollywood, but there are some hints in the book, if I recall correctly.

  23. True. I would have expected a mere tap, or at most a flap, from Lionel.

  24. I read The Ice House a long time ago; what electrified me now was the five ‘eё’ (her) in one sentence. Surely writers paid more attention to style by that time. Pushkin was at his peak, Gogol already published Dikanka Evenings, and Turgenev was just putting pen to paper. What’s going on?

  25. Dmitry: in biological systems, chemical gradients and flows are exactly equivalent to electric voltages and currents (because electricity is carried by ions, and voltage may be maintained only across biomembranes)
    Does “exactly equivalent” mean ” essentially the same” ? Yes, they’re equivalent, but no, they’re not the same. In the case of chemical synapses, the “signal” involves a neurotransmitter chemical, in the other case not. That’s why I wrote that even if Galvani and contemporaries had meant “electric signals”, they would have been partly in error – in that they would have missed the chemical component.
    But do you imagine that Galvani and his contemporaries had anything like that in mind, in addition to modern notions of “signalling” and “nerve cells” ? Galvani tried to explain his findings in terms of an “electric fluid”. This is a hydraulic metaphor. Perhaps he was suggesting that frogs pump iron, not ions.
    The WiPe statement – in the history section of the article – to the effect that

    “Luigi Galvani published his discovery of bioelectricity, demonstrating that electricity was the medium by which nerve cells passed signals to the muscles.”

    is an attempt to explain to modern readers, in terms they can understand without getting up from the couch, the significance of Galvani’s discoveries. In such popularizations of science history, the historical context is replaced by anachronistic sound bites.

  26. Surely writers paid more attention to style by that time.
    “Writers” is meaningless as a category; there are only writers. Some pay attention to style, others don’t; L. was in the latter category. The existence of Dan Brown doesn’t mean that writers today are bad as a class.

  27. Yeah, but still, I’m dashed.

  28. David Marjanović says

    the Baghdad Battery

    A magic device that just so happens to be a very, very, very, very weak battery but was intended to protect the building by quite different means.

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