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The strange origins of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

18 March 2013
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Was Robert Louis Stevenson inspired by the STE membership list when writing about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?

Membership list of the Society of Telegraph Engineers

How Jekyll and Hyde appeared in the membership list of the Society of Telegraph Engineers.

Sarah Hales describes the excitement of discovering hidden treasures in the IET Archives.

One of the joys of working in an archive is discovering unexpected links between subjects which seemingly hold no direct correlation. One of our most recent discoveries is one that we think worth sharing with IET members.
Most people will be familiar with the 1886 novella ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, the tale of a morally just man who transforms into an evil criminal after consuming a self-invented potion. The phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ has since become a by-word to describe anybody or anything with a split personality, but where did Stevenson find inspiration for these intriguing and somewhat unusual names? As a novelist with a vivid imagination, it may be that he simply plucked them out of thin air, indeed, the name Jekyll originates from Stevenson’s native Scotland; but there is some evidence to suggest that he took these names from the first membership list of the Society of Telegraph Engineers (STE), the IET’s predecessor founded in 1871.
These lists were printed annually or once every two years from 1872 to 1997 and provide contact information about members as well as the date that they joined. They are currently held by the IET Archives and can also be found bound with early editions of the Society of Telegraph Engineers journal, which can be consulted in the Library at IET London: Savoy Place.
The link between Jekyll and Hyde and the STE was first noticed by Rollo Appleyard in his book ‘The History of the Institution of Electrical Engineers 1871-1931’. When discussing the early days of the STE and referring to the membership list which was published in 1872, he noted ‘the curious addition of Jekyll and Hyde’. ‘Jekyll’ was Lt H. Jekyll, Royal Engineer, and one of the first members to join in 1871, while ‘Hyde’ was Major General H. Hyde of the India Office, another prominent telegraph engineer of the time. There is also another name in the list that corresponds with a character in the novella, Frederick C. Danvers, who shares a name with Hyde’s victim in the book, Sir Danvers Carew, while a number of other characters share names with civil and mechanical engineers of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Inspector Newcomen, who possibly derived his name from the famed steam engine inventor.

COINCIDENCE?

These links were passed off as coincidental and not pursued further until 1949, when the then Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) contacted the Society of Genealogists to ask them to research into the possibility of a relationship between Stevenson and Edward Alfred Stevenson, a member of the STE who also appears in the first membership list. The IET Archives hold a copy of the report that the Society of Genealogists sent to the IEE as a result of this research. It was concluded in the report that there was no link between Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Alfred Stevenson, and suggested that Robert Louis Stevenson may have found access to the STE membership lists via his father, who was a prominent Scottish lighthouse engineer. There may have been some truth in this, but it is also possible that Stevenson came across the membership lists another way.
As well as being the son of a lighthouse engineer, Stevenson studied engineering at the University of Edinburgh. Though he would come to loathe the subject and seek a career as a writer, Stevenson developed a close friendship with his professor at Edinburgh, Fleeming Jenkin. While Jenkin was a pioneering electrical and telegraph engineer, both men shared an avid interest in poetry and theatre and took part in amateur dramatics together. When Jenkin died suddenly in 1885 Stevenson was distressed and shocked. To aid the grieving process he began writing a memoir of Jenkin that was completed in 1887.

FRIENDSHIP

It is Stevenson’s friendship with Jenkin that perhaps provides the strongest evidence that he was inspired by the STE membership list for his characters’ names in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. He wrote the book at the same time as writing Jenkin’s memoir during a period of intense activity and so it is likely that his research for the memoirs may have influenced the thinking behind the novella. This idea is compounded when one actually looks at the page of the STE membership lists that contains the names of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. Col H. Hyde and Lt H. Jekyll are right next to each other, while Fleeming Jenkin FRS MICE, of 5 Fettes Row, Edinburgh, is two places directly below Jekyll. Did Stevenson look up Jenkin’s entry in the STE membership lists, and see the names of Jekyll and Hyde so close together and be inspired, consciously or subconsciously, to use them in his latest work of fiction?

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