Galvani’s frog (1780)

The history of electricity

Alessandro Volta’s extensive research, which led to the invention of the first voltaic battery, went deliberately counter to Luigi Galvani‘s notion of ‘animal electricity’. A strange phenomenon observed by Galvani had prompted this idea; the moment of discovery is depicted in Dufy’s fresco.

One evening in 1780 Galvani was in his laboratory watching his students experiment on the corpses of frogs. Meanwhile a friend of his was trying out an electric machine. Galvani placed one of the corpses near the machine, and when one of his assistants touched the frog’s crural nerves with his scalpel, it suddenly went into convulsions. Galvani mentally made the connection with the electric machine: at a distance the machine charges the metal scalpel with static electricity, and the scalpel makes the frog’s muscles contract when it touches the relevant nerves. 

The scene is taken by Dufy directly from an illustration by the popular science writer Louis Figuier.

Back to top of page