30. Zinc: The Lecture Circuit

Learn about some of Italy’s most renowned chemists and how they inspired a most gruesome quest to conquer death.

Featured above: A galvanized corpse. But not just any galvanized corpse. See the show notes to learn what everyone is talking about.

Show Notes

Brevity Is The Soul Of Wit: The featured image at the top of this post is actually a political cartoon. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons, I can share the entertaining (if long-winded) translation of what all is happening there:

Rising of a corpse galvanized by a primitive galvanic battery. A pedestrian throws his arms in the air because of shock, saying: ‘Had I not been born insensible to fear, now should I be most horribly afraid. Hence! horrible shadow! unreal mockery. Hence! And yet it stays: can it be real. How it grows! How malignity and venom are “blended in cadaverous union” in its countenance! It must surely be a “galvanized corpse.” But what do I feel? The thing begins to draw me . . . I can’t withstand it. I shall hug it! . . . ‘ Two demons in the left down corner discussing. First demon: “There! We’ve lost him, after all! See! they are bringing him to life again!” Second demon: (holding a copy of Blair’s newspaper, the “Globe)”: “Lose him! ha ha! . . . Rest you easy on that score. But can’t you see that it’s all for our gain that he should be galvanized into activity again? Where have we his equal on earth? especially since dear Amos [Kendall], poor fellow, has got his hands so full, at the Post Office, that he can’t write for us as he used to. Show me another man that can lie like him. They talk of Croswell [influential editor of the “Albany Argus” and Van Buren ally Edwin Croswell] but Harry is nothing to him. I doubt if I can beat him myself. Lose him! a good joke that!”

Incidentally, we don’t galvanize corpses anymore, but we’ve repurposed the word. “Galvanizing” now refers to coating a metal, usually iron or steel, with zinc to protect it from corrosion. It’s kind of nice that we get to keep a little linguistic nod to both the Galvanis, without the subject involving cadavers.

Thank Goodness For Spellcheck: I mentioned that Paracelsus gave zinc its name from a German word for “sharp.” It’s also a word that has a rather sharp sound, making zinc one of the few elements with an onomatopoetic name.

Hate To See What He Did To His Enemies: Just as a reminder, Benjamin Franklin was enamored with the turkey, which he called “a much more respectable bird” than the bald eagle, an animal he judged as having “bad moral character.” But I suppose being an upstanding citizen won’t save you from the electric chair if your meat is so tender and delicious.1

Incidentally, Franklin didn’t actually want the turkey to be the national bird of the United States. He thought it was pretty great, and that the bald eagle was pretty lousy, but stopped just short of that suggestion.

It’s Not For Your Car: Incidentally, the “electrical jack” that Franklin mentions was an invention of his that spun meat on a spit over the fire. The dude basically invented the Costco rotisserie chicken.

Franklin Potpourri: He did fly the kite, but didn’t actually get electrocuted. That would have killed him, probably. But his guests did get electrocuted while playing a party game he called “Treason.” Players would try to remove a metal crown from a portrait of King George, but if they touched the frame while doing so, they’d receive an electrical shock. “If a ring of players take the shock among them,” he said, “the experiment is called The Conspirators.”

Hey, Franklin Liked France: If you happen to live closer to Paris, France than Parris Island, try looking up. Many of that city’s rooftops are clad in zinc, and are so beloved that the city is trying to get them designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“Aldini Shock Therapy” Is My New Band Name: Giovanni Aldini might have been more of an entertainer than his aunt and uncle, but he wasn’t a charlatan. Aldini was also one of the first people to administer a form of electroshock therapy to melancholic patients. (Benjamin Franklin — of course — is among the few who might have beaten him to the punch.) It even worked sometimes, but with difficulty:

Aldini also applied this primitive form of electroconvulsive therapy to some of the patients at la Salpêtrière, but with limited success. The major problem was that these patients were often agitated and displayed great terror in face of Aldini’s unusual apparatus. Furthermore, most of them had their arms tied up so that they could not place their hands on the bottom of the voltaic pile. Nevertheless, Aldini was able to circumvent some of these limitations by applying the two ends of the electric arc on the ears, or even on the earrings of female patients.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Electroshock therapy continues to have a rather terrifying reputation (who else remembers this cinema classic from their childhood?), but it actually can be very effective for some mental health issues in patients who don’t respond to drugs.

The Year Without A Summer: 1816 was famously called “The Year Without A Summer,” because a massive volcano darkened the skies around the globe and lowered global temperatures. A similar event would inspire Edvard Munch’s The Scream in 1893.

It Looks Like A Message: Confederate monuments are especially conspicuous where they exist in northern states, but the one that stood in Baltimore until recently is especially interesting. Maryland was a slave state for most of the Civil War, but it was technically a member of the Union the entire time. The state was represented by a star on the Confederate flag, but of the 85,000 Maryland residents who enlisted, three-quarters of them joined the Union side. And Baltimore’s monument to Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee wasn’t erected until 1948 — three years after World War II, during a period of time when white vigilantes blinded, castrated, or killed 56 black Americans across the South. Many of them were WWII veterans.

The quality of these mass-produced zinc statues is especially evident in how easily this one was torn down, and the way it immediately crumples upon falling:

While we’re on the subject, the national flag of the CSA was not the one that can be found flying in many parts of the United States today. That’s a whole other contentious issue, and I unfortunately don’t have enough time to do it justice here in the show notes of this chemistry podcast. But one thing I’ll just drop right here that I never learned about in school is the Cornerstone Speech, which was given by Alexander Stephens in 1861. It’s short, and should be read in full, but this bit is especially relevant:

[The U.S. Constitution] rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.” Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”


Even when he had his arm twisted into walking the speech back, he remained firm on this point: “Slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession.”

Save Your Money: In addition to those zinc cold remedies, there’s little-to-no evidence that any of the other ones work, either. Echinacea, vitamin C, anything that “clears toxins,” none of them have any effect beyond placebo — although that can admittedly be effective, even if you know you’re taking a fake pill. What does have at least a little benefit, however, is chicken soup. (The exact one tested was handed down by a Lithuanian grandmother.)

Click To Read Transcript


  1. History.com, Did Benjamin Franklin Propose The Turkey As The National Symbol? Christopher Klein, November 21, 2016.
  2. The Periodic Table, p. 36. Primo Levi, 1975; English translation 1984.
  3. Discovering The Eighth Metal: A History Of Zinc. Fathi Habashi. (PDF)
  4. Brain Research Bulletin, Vol. 46, No. 5, Medicine And Science In The Life Of Luigi Galvani (1737 – 1798). Marco Bresadola, 1998. (PDF)
  5. American Physical Society News, Ben Franklin Attempts To Electrocute A Turkey. Ernie Tretkoff, December 2006.
  6. The New York Public Library, Ben Franklin On Cooking… With Electricity. Meredith Mann, November 24, 2014.
  7. The Life Of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 3: Soldier, Scientist, and Politician, 1748 – 1757, p. 77. J. A. Leo Lemay, 2009.
  8. Etymonline, Battery.
  9. Helix, The Experiment That Shocked The World. Andrew Lai, August 2, 2017.
  10. The French National Centre For Scientific Research, Galvani And “Animal Electricity”. Christine Blondel and Bertrand Wolff, translated by Andrew Butrica, March 2007.
  11. Physics, p. 47. Neville G. Warren, 2000.
  12. APS News, March 20, 1800: Volta Describes The Electric Battery. March 2006.
  13. MIT Libraries, The Voltaic Pile.
  14. The Guardian, Sparks Of Life. Mark Pilkington, October 6, 2004.
  15. Origins Of Neuroscience: A History Of Explorations Into Brain Function, p. 434. Stanley Finger, 1994.
  16. Minds Behind The Brain: A History Of The Pioneers And Their Discoveries, p. 115. Stanley Finger, 2000.
  17. A History Of The Brain: From Stone Age Surgery To Modern Neuroscience, p. 123. Andrew P. Wickens, 2015.
  18. Atlas Obscura, The Real Electric Frankenstein Experiments Of The 1800s. Lauren Young, October 31, 2016.
  19. Introduction to the 1831 Revised Edition of Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus.
  20. The Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, Zinc Sculpture.
  21. Atlas Obscura, Those Mass-Produced Civil War Monuments Were Meant To Stand Forever. Cara Giaimo, August 25, 2017.
  22. Hyperallergic, The North’s Role In Supplying The South With Confederate Monuments. Lola Arellano-Fryer, June 15, 2017.
  23. New Haven Register, Connecticut Was Home To Leading Manufacturer Of Civil War Monuments. The Associated Press, April 18, 2015.
  24. The Washington Post, Why Those Confederate Soldier Statues Look A Lot Like Their Union Counterparts. Marc Fisher, August 18, 2017.
  25. Southern Poverty Law Center, Whose Heritage? A Report On Public Symbols Of The Confederacy
  26. NPR, Confederate Statues Were Built To Further A ‘White Supremacist Future’. Miles Parks, August 20, 2017.
  27. Quartz, “You Can’t Change History”: Read Donald Trump’s Defense Of Confederate Statues. Marc Bain, August 15, 2017. (The title in the URL is actually more pertinent to the story: “Statues Of Confederate Soldiers Were Cheaply Mass-Produced In The North.”
  28. RN.com, Zicam Alert: FDA Recalls Popular Cold Remedy.
  29. The Outline, Quick-Fix Cold And Flu Remedies Do Nothing But Make You Poorer. Angela Lashbrook, January 25, 2019.

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