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How an eel sparked our interest in electricity

Naomi Alderman tells how the shocking power of an eel sparked scientific interest in electricity.

Naomi Alderman presents an alternate history of electricity. This is not a story of power stations, motors and wires. It’s a story of how the electric eel and its cousin the torpedo fish, led to the invention of the first battery; and how, in time, the shocking properties of these slippery creatures gave birth to modern neuroscience. Our fascination with electric fish and their ability to deliver an almighty shock - enough to kill a horse - goes back to ancient times. And when Alessandro Volta invented the first battery in 1800, the electric eel was a vital source of inspiration. In inventing the battery, Volta claimed to have disproved the idea of ‘animal electricity’, but 200 years later, scientists studying our brains revealed that it’s thanks to the electricity in our nerve cells that we are able to move, think and feel. So, it seems, an idea that was pushed out of science and into fiction, when Mary Shelley invented Frankenstein, is now alive and well and delivering insight once again into what it means to be alive.

Producer: Anna Buckley

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28 minutes