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Galvani's animal electricity experiments

A chance observation led Luigi Galvani (1737-98) to discover animal electricity in 1871. The IET Archives holds two rare editions of Galvani's work `De Viribus- Electricitatis in Motu Musculari' from 1791 and 1792.

Illustration of Luigi Galvani's famous frog experiments 1792

Shown here is an illustration of Luigi Galvani's famous frog experiments taken from his work, De Viribus - Electricitatis in Motu Musculari. 1792.

A chance observation led Luigi Galvani (1737-98) to discover animal electricity in 1871. When the nerve of a frog that Galvani's wife was preparing for soup was accidentally touched with a knife a muscle contraction occurred despite the frog not being connected to an electrical machine. Galvani investigated the cause and discovered contractions were excited when two different metals touched.

Previously, Isaac Newton had theorised a link between the 'animal spirits' described in antiquity and the subtle electrical fluids hypothesised by physicists. Caldini had observed that merely bringing an electrified rod within close proximity of a frog would stimulate its muscles. However, it was Galvani who determined that electricity was present in the animal itself. From his frog experiments he deduced that contractions were caused by the flow of electricity and when one occurred a nervo-electric fluid was conducted from the nerves to the muscle. This gave a physiological basis for medical electrical treatment.

To find out more about animal electricity and electricity in medicine see the Medical Electricity online exhibition.