The climate event that helped create Frankenstein and the bicycle.
Last year marked the two hundredth anniversary of the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora, among the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Next year, 2017, will be the two hundredth anniversary of Baron Karl Drais’s “running machine,” the precursor to the modern bicycle. Strange as it may seem, these three events are all intimately related; they’re all tied together by the great shift in climate that made 1816 the “year without a summer.”
Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia—then the Dutch East Indies—began its week-long eruption on April 5, 1815, though its impact would last years. Lava flows leveled the island, killing nearly all plant and animal life and reducing Tambora’s height by a third. It belched huge clouds of dust into the air, bringing almost total darkness to the surrounding area for days. The geologist Charles Lyell would reflect that “the darkness occasioned in the daytime by the ashes in Java was so profound, that nothing equal to it was ever witnessed in the darkest night.” According to Lyell, of the twelve thousand residents of the province of Tambora, only twenty-six survived. Tens of thousands more were choked to their deaths by the thick black air and the falling dust, which blanketed the ground in piles more than a meter high.
Countless tons of volcanic ash circulated in the upper atmosphere for years after the event, blocking out sunlight and lowering averages surface temperatures globally. In parts of North America and Europe temperatures dropped by more than eighteen degrees Fahrenheit. There was snow in New England in July, and dark rain clouds swept over Europe throughout the summer months. In Hungary, there were reports of brown snowfall, tainted by volcanic ash. With the cold came crop failures and famine, and the price of basic commodities skyrocketed. Food shortages compounded those already in place in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, after retreating armies had helped themselves to whole harvests (Tolstoy, in War and Peace, offers the image of “a splendid field of oats in which a camp had been pitched, and which was being mown down by the soldiers evidently for fodder.”) Record numbers of people starved to death in Paris in 1816, in what would be Europe’s last major subsistence crisis. These bleak circumstances hit hardest in and around the Alpine regions of France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
It was in this context that the young Mary Shelley traveled to Geneva in April 1816, accompanied by her half sister, Claire Clairmont, and her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley. At the time, Mary was only eighteen years old, and was in fact not yet a Shelley; she would marry Percy later that year, their marriage made possible by the suicide of his first wife. The Shelleys, having eloped amid scandal, had spent much of the past two years traveling around the continent. They were now led by Claire, who was eager to rekindle a romance with another British literary exile. Lord Byron was escaping his own cloud of dust, formed of a failing marriage and rumors of an incestuous affair. He would never return to England. Arriving in Geneva, he rented a grand villa near the Shelleys, and the writers quickly entered a lifelong friendship.
Geneva had been struck by flooding and famine, and soup kitchens were opened for the poor. There is evidence of the appalling weather in the group’s writings of the time. Mary observed that “the thunder storms that visit us are grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before.” Favored mountain roads remained impassable, and their evening pastime of rowing on Lake Geneva was often impossible because of strong gales and heavy rains. The perpetual heaviness of what should have been summer skies inspired Byron’s miserable lyric “Darkness,” in which the sun is permanently extinguished, and mankind dies:
All earth was but one thought—and that was death,
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails—men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured
According to Mary’s introduction to Frankenstein, it had been “a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house,” which likely only exacerbated their sense of suffocating doom. One night in July, the group’s entrapment in Byron’s villa occasioned a suggestion that would shape literary history: “we will each write a ghost story.” Though Mary’s offering took several days—and one sleepless night—to concoct, the result was one of the greatest works of English-language fiction ever written by man or woman. Frankenstein was thus fittingly devised amidst the maelstrom of a violent set of storms that had all but blotted out the summer sun.
Frankenstein could be called a novel about birth—the letters that comprise the narrative span precisely nine months. Victor Frankenstein defies nature to birth a motherless monster, creating a grotesque assemblage of body parts in his lab and introducing an animating “spark” of life. Victor is at once the scientist who would play god and also the world’s worst dad—rejecting his offspring the moment of its birth, and never asking whether it would have wanted life in the first place.
Victor’s downfall is dramatized by changing weather. The pre-monster world is a notable counterpoint to Geneva in 1816; Victor observes, early on, that “It was a most beautiful season; never did the fields bestow a more plentiful harvest, or the vines yield a more luxuriant vintage.” As the narrative becomes one of psychological terror, murder, and a global manhunt between creature and creator, the weather rapidly worsens. Storms come and go, and lightning flashes with regularity. Frosts come, then thicken. By the end of the novel, Victor has pursued the monster to the Arctic circle, and all is a bleak hell of jagged ice, freezing winds, and billowing snow. Almost alone at the top of the earth, Victor dies amidst an apocalyptic vision that makes the end of his world look a lot like an act of the weather. Nature has avenged itself.
Barely five hundred kilometers north of Byron’s villa, Baron Karl Drais, a student of mathematics and a self-styled inventor, was witnessing first-hand the effects of the shift in climate. What is now the Baden-Württemberg region in the southwest of Germany was hit by much of the worst weather the continent would see. Mannheim, where Drais was living during the “Year without a Summer,” flooded repeatedly, and the Rhine regularly rose above its banks there.
Crops, which had had no chance to recover after being ransacked by Napoleon’s armies, failed across the area, and the subsequent oat shortage led to the starvation of humans and livestock alike. The religious mystic Baroness von Krüdener, a resident in the region at the time, read the weather as a set of apocalyptic signs: “The time is approaching when the Lord of Lords will reassume the reins. He himself will feed his flock. […] The Rhine rots with corpses.” And the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, describing Baden in 1817, writes in On War of “ruined figures, scarcely resembling men, prowling around the fields searching for food among the unharvested and already half rotten potatoes that never grew to maturity.” It was due to the crop failures that tens of thousands of horses starved to death, and many more were slaughtered either to save money or to become a dinner. The shortage of oats was thus akin to a modern fuel crisis, and by early 1817 transport and industry in Germany was grinding to a halt.
Historians agree that it was this sudden dearth of horses that led Drais to turn to turn to man-powered transport; his biographer Hans-Erhard Lessing notes that his two attempts at inventing such a vehicle precisely coincide with ‘the first and the worst crop failures’ around Baden. Comments Drais made on his earliest four-wheel designs show that he was always working to replace horses—but equally they show that he understood the oat shortage as predominantly a product of the wars: “In wartime, when horses and their fodder often become scarce, a small fleet of such wagons at each corps could be important, especially for dispatches over short distances and for carrying the wounded.” His first designs for human-powered transportation involved complex, conveyor belt–driven four-wheel vehicles. But Drais’s breakthrough came when he turned his thoughts to balance. Drawing on his experiences skating on icy ponds, Drais put his faith in the powers of momentum and front-wheel steering to keep a two-wheel vehicle upright; this idea became his Laufmaschine, or “running-machine.”
It’s clear from Drais’s notes that he began thinking about the bike as both a response to bad weather, and as a solution to the dearth of horses; he boasts in promotional material that the Laufmaschine is, importantly, twice walking speed “even directly after a strong rain,” and that, going downhill, ‘it is faster than a galloping horse’. Made from a frame of seasoned ash, the Laufmaschine could be straddled by a rider, allowing his or her (usually his) feet to kick off along the ground. There were no pedals for support, but there was little demand for them—the concept of balancing on two wheels was so distrusted at the time that riders of the Laufmaschine would rarely lift their feet for more than a second. It did, though, feature basic bearings and thin iron plates around the wheels (apparently inspired by horseshoes), and Drais even developed a rudimentary rear brake. He demonstrated his Laufmaschine, riding it for fifteen kilometers, in June 1817, just more than a year after the Shelley party had arrived in Geneva. The following month he journeyed around fifty kilometers in four hours.
Drais’s invention had an immediate impact, and imitations appeared in Britain and America within the year, rebranded as “hobby-horses” and “velocipedes.” The machine enjoyed a brief peak in popularity in 1819, with thousands appearing in London alone. But fears about safety—of the rider and of the pedestrian public—quickly led to bans, and the Laufsmaschine’s ubiquity waned.
Despite this short success, Drais’s two-wheeler lives on in the modern bicycle, which gained its first pedals, cranks, and gears in France in the 1860s. His design can be seen in the pared down simplicity of the single-speed and fixed-gear machines that are now the fetish objects of hipster culture. And his basic premise lives on: the bike is human-powered, sustainable, and energy efficient. For Drais, it was a pragmatic response to an unprecedented shift in climate; today, it’s a symbol of the middle-class culture of ethical sustainability and emission-free transport that is a response to another such shift.
When Tambora erupted, locals took it as an act of God against his people; some saw it as nature’s revenge against the European colonization of Sumbawa. Today, in the face of global warming and climate change, we might experience a similar sense that nature is fighting back. Frankenstein might still be our best fictional depiction of what happens when man wrongs nature. Wracked with guilt over his creation, he comes to ask: “Had I a right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?” But guilt, of course, is not enough. The captain at the end of the novel says to Victor, “You throw a torch into a pile of buildings, and when they are consumed you sit among the ruins, and lament the fall.” This is Shelley’s warning; she wants desperately for us to ask the question “what have I done?” before the doing is complete and irrevocable. In her subsequent novel The Last Man, a plague entirely ravages European and American society, plunging civilization into chaos. Finally, as the title promises, everyone is gone save for one man. But the natural world remains completely unchanged. Nature cheerily goes on, apparently only the better for the death of humankind.
Frankenstein was written at a time of uncertainty, when a seemingly enraged natural world was hurling strange and apocalyptic signs in the direction of mankind. That very same change in climate gave us the bicycle. And if Shelley’s novel asks us to rethink our relationship with nature, the bike offers us one way of doing just that—of experiencing landscape through our own energy and exertion. When we are faced with climate change, we are forced to think about our collective future, and we are forced to invent. This might in part explain the current ongoing obsession, in films and video games, with the apocalyptic narratives of zombie fiction, and the popularity of the The Walking Dead series and similar shows. Where fantasy writing tries to take us as far from lived experience as possible, science fiction creates a space for us to think about our relationship with the world, a relationship mediated by new and imagined technologies. Frankenstein is about transgressive invention, but it is itself an invented thing, a response to and a sign of extreme and unsettling weather conditions that were never fully understood at the time. Shelley doesn’t show us how to repent our sins against the natural world, but her novel, like modern cultural responses to climate change and global warming, works in other ways. Such works ask us to reconsider the actions we take for granted, and the ways in which we make an impact upon the world. They show us the worst of possible futures in order that we might pause the terrible lines of progress we make. In that sense, Frankenstein, with its lesson about a vengeful nature, is as pressing today as it was two hundred years ago when Shelley first dreamed it up on a stormy July night.
Chris Townsend is a Ph.D. candidate with the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge. He writes about literature and literary history, especially the works of the Romantic poets.