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Geek Trivia: Fires of the imagination

What famous horror novel was an indirect result of the devastating Mt. Tambora volcanic eruption of 1815, which significantly impacted global climate conditions for more than a year?

What famous novel was an indirect result of the devastating Mt. Tambora volcanic eruption of 1815, which significantly impacted global climate conditions for more than a year?

The novel in question is none other than Frankenstein, begun in 1816 by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley), thanks to a vacation ruined by the fallout from Mt. Tambora.

During the summer of 1816, Mary accompanied her sister Claire Clairmont to a vacation spot -- the Villa Diodati -- on the shores of Lake Geneva, where Mary's soon-to-be husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (married to someone else at the time), joined them. Their friend, fellow poet Lord Byron, was staying nearby. Unfortunately, the normally pleasant location was cold, wet, and gloomy due to the effects of Tambora's fallout.

One particular night, a Tambora-induced storm forced Mary and Percy to seek shelter with Lord Byron; the trio, along with Byron's physician, John Polidori, spent the evening reading ghost stories aloud. The evening culminated in Byron's famous challenge that each of them should compose an original ghost story.

Mary Shelley wins the notoriety prize for turning out the most famous result of Byron's challenge. Just days later, she set down the first pages of what would become Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

The original version that the future Mrs. Shelley read aloud likely bore some significant differences when compared to the final published version, which appeared two years later. Nonetheless, history is clear that the monster and his creator were born on the shores of Lake Geneva during the summer of 1816 as the result of extraordinarily hostile weather and a Romantic poet's dare.

Precisely how inhospitable was the climate outside the Villa Diodati during Mary Shelley's stay? Besides the unseasonable cold, she remarked in letters to her sister about the extremely powerful thunderstorms that wracked the estate and whose lightning illuminated Lake Geneva at night.

This very likely inspired much of the weather-related imagery that appears in the novel -- though at no point does the mad Dr. Frankenstein actually try to capture lightning to animate his creature. That's a Hollywood artifice you can lay at the feet of movie director James Whale, who helmed the classic 1931 silver-screen version of Frankenstein.

Despite Whale's artistic license, it seems pretty clear that Frankenstein in all his incarnations was the product of a bolt from the black, which is so often the power source of ghoulishly great Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the October 24 edition of Geek Trivia, "Flying by the (ejection) seat of your pants." My old buddy Bill Ward busted me for space program missteps again, this one related to my assertion that NASA designed its space shuttles to have a 10-year lifespan.

"The Space Shuttle Orbiters were designed with an orbital life, not a year life. The SSOs were designed for about 100 missions before the basic airframe would be considered to be used up and need replacing... Strangely, the OLDEST shuttle would have been the one held the longest (Columbia) since its higher weight limited its availability to service any space stations or for larger satellite launches, limiting how often it was used."

As usual, Bill's right. If the shuttles had flown their original aggressive flight schedules -- the ones NASA drew up before the loss of Challenger -- NASA would have retired them in 10 years, which is where my confusion comes in. Nonetheless, Bill caught me, and you probably will too -- so keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

3 comments
rludwig
rludwig

I'm betting that virtually everyone knew that the reference was to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (OK, it was not Shelley at the time but that's the name we have associated with the work). But, the original challenge was for EACH of the three to write an original ghost story. What were the submissions from Byron and Shelley?

djt34175
djt34175

My Quibble: I don't think lava will be found where volcanoes blast ash into the sky and remove part of the mountain. These are rhyolitic volcanoes. Magma comes from basic volcanoes which ooze out and flow accross the suface solidifying into basalt. "The Mount Tambora volcano blasted a column of volcanic material -- composed of roughly 50 cubic kilometers of lava and perhaps three times that volume worth of ash -- more than 40 kilometers into the sky. The hundreds of millions of tons of ash and sulfur dioxide hanging in the atmosphere after the eruption obscured light and heat from the sun.

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