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ParaParaYukiko's avatar

Where did the idea of the "mad scientist" come from?

Asked by ParaParaYukiko (6111points) October 6th, 2010

The mad scientist is one of the archetypes of villains in storytelling, whether it’s film, writing, cartoons, video games, or other media. But where did this come from? Who created the first story of the “mad scientist” and when? Was the idea of the mad scientist a reaction to some cultural thing?

I’m just curious since I’ve been looking at pictures of laboratories. :)

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21 Answers

marinelife's avatar

From the wiki:

“Since ancient times, popular imagination has circulated on archetypal figures who wielded esoteric knowledge. Shamans, witches and witch doctors were held in reverence and fear of their rumored abilities to conjure beasts and create demons. They shared many of the same perceived characteristics such as eccentric behavior, living as hermits, and the ability to create life.

Perhaps the closest figure in Western mythology to the modern mad scientist was Daedalus, creator of the labyrinth, who was then imprisoned by King Minos. To escape, he invented two pairs of wings made from feathers and beeswax, one for himself and the other for his son Icarus. While Daedalus himself managed to fly to safety, Icarus flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax of his wings, casting him down into the sea below.

In actual history, Archimedes shares some of the elements of the mad scientist[citation needed], but was closer to the more benign archetype of the absent-minded professor (anecdotally, at least – read the story of the Golden Crown or the accounts of his death for examples).

A more whimsical prototype of the mad scientist can be found in Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds. The play depicts Socrates, a contemporary of Aristophanes, as tinkering with odd devices and performing implausible experiments to determine the nature of the clouds and sky, and presents his philosophical method as a means for deceiving others and escaping blame, closer to the later descriptions of his opponents, the Sophists, than to those usually ascribed to him.”

ParaParaYukiko's avatar

Should’ve thought to look at Wikipedia. Silly me.

Isn’t it interesting that cultural equivalents to mad scientists showed up as far back as ancient Greece? Thanks for the info, @marinelife!

downtide's avatar

Well, I was going to mention Dr Frankenstein, but I think @marinelife ‘s examples beat mine by a good 2–3000 years.

Austinlad's avatar

Hell hath no fury like a scientist scorned by the Nbel committee.

Blueroses's avatar

I don’t know if it is the origin of the archetype but I’ve read some interesting articles about mad and irrational behavior in scholars that are now being attributed to mercury poisoning.
Quicksilver was sometimes believed to be the possible key to alchemy and perhaps even to the mystery of the spark of life, itself. Those who handled it or ingested it regularly in the course of their studies might start to exhibit symptoms of mental illness.

GeorgeGee's avatar

Technically, science didn’t exist in ancient times, though craftsmanship, metallurgy, engineering and “witchcraft” did. I don’t think Daedalus or Archimedes fit the “mad” description either, but there is certainly a story from ancient times that does, that of Hephaestus, who according to the stories, built robots and elaborate mechanical people-traps. Just what we’d expect of a mad scientist of that era:

“Hephaestus was literally a social outcast from birth-Hera, queen of the gods, cast him from Mount Olympus, offended by his hideous face-an admittedly unusual characteristic for a divine being. After he fell from heaven for a full day, nymphs rescued him from drowning at sea and gave him refuge on the island of Lemnos, where he built a mighty palace underneath a volcano.

It was within this palace where Hephaestus first began to embody the nerd archetype. He didn’t have Halo, Half-Life or Magic: The Gathering to play, but he did have armies of one-eyed Cyclopes to build whatever he wanted, equipped with iron and magma in place of the usual Lincoln Logs and Erector sets. The god lost his legs in the fall from Olympus, but instead of sulking about it, he took some initiative and forged robots out of gold and silver to help him walk. Yes, folks, Hephaestus invented robots. Robots!

Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking this heavenly blacksmith was little more than a reclusive pushover, though. Sure, the cooler deities had a tendency to assume they could walk all over those uglier than they. But when Hephaestus was wronged, like Anthony Edwards and Robert Carradine two glorious decades ago, this divine nerd got his revenge.

Hephaestus’s trick of the trade was imprisonment. When Hera cast him out of Olympus and made him undergo a fall of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” proportions, he didn’t just cry into a puddle of lava. He retorted by crafting a magic throne for her that entrapped her the split second she sat in it. Hephaestus: 1, Olympians: 0.

Similarly, when his wife, goddess of love Aphrodite, cheated on him with emo-kid god of war Ares, he didn’t take the offense sitting down-not that he had a choice.

On the night of one of their particularly sordid love affairs, he built an impregnable cage around their bed, trapping the gods and putting their bare divine flesh in full view for the other gods to laugh at and ogle.”

ParaParaYukiko's avatar

@GeorgeGee Hephaestus invented robots. How awesome is that.

@Blueroses Ahh… I hadn’t thought of that! Good point about the quicksilver.

JilltheTooth's avatar

I just thought they were mad because the grant money ran out.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@JilltheTooth That just makes them cranky.
Blueroses nailed it. The mercury is also what makes for the mad in Mad Hatters. Mercury was used in hat making to make the brims stiff, I believe, and it drove some of the hatters insane.

JilltheTooth's avatar

I think it’s incredibly cool that you guys know this stuff.

dkranzberg's avatar

In my opinion Mary Shelley’s novel doesn’t actually portrays Frankenstein as a mad scientist—in the sense that he is depicted in film. I think the mad scientist is a 20th century film construct. If Frankenstein is a mad scientist, then I think Dr. Faust is an earlier prototype.

Austinlad's avatar

I can’t quote the history of the term like others on this thread because I never thought about it in anything but dramatic terms. In literature and cinema, it’s a time-tested device that very graphically pits Religion against Science (i.e., Good against Evil).

Blueroses's avatar

@Austinlad I was thinking about that also. Aside from an organic reason for mad behavior, it could be pretty frightening to see someone challenging the omniscience of the prevailing Gods by doing things like taking apart cadavers or building a machine for flight. Maybe when “witchcraft” fell out of favor, “mad scientist” took its place.

fundevogel's avatar

While not about mad science per se the book The Elements of Murder devotes an extensive section to mercury and mercury poisoning in history. It’s really interesting stuff.

josie's avatar

The history of the notion notwithstanding, I am still going with Frankenstein. At least in the 20th century, that is the epitome of the mad scientist.

fundevogel's avatar

@josie Frankenstein was published at the beginning of the 19th century.

fundevogel's avatar

Notable other notable mad scientists:

Rappaccini, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter – 1844
Coppelius, from Hoffman’s Der Sandman – 1816
Faust (in spirit at least) – from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in 1592 and Gothe’s Faust in 1829

josie's avatar

@fundevogel But most folks were unaware of Frankenstein until the James Whale movie in 1931. Dr. Frankenstein ranting “It’s alive!!!” pretty much makes the image.

fundevogel's avatar

@josie From wikipedia:

“Frankenstein achieved an almost immediate popular success. It became widely known especially through melodramatic theatrical adaptations…”

I expect you’re confusing re-popularization with obscurity. It had been around about a hundred years. Of course popularity had dropped off between the initial interest and the making of the movie. Several generations of people had died in between after all.

flutherother's avatar

It reflects people’s unease with scientific advances which don’t always lead to benefits for mankind. There was an idea that scientists were obsessed with their craft for its own sake without thought as to the moral or social implications of what they were doing.

peridot's avatar

Dedicated scientists—and artists—perceive the world in a different way from the mainstream, and often tend to isolate socially in favor of following their perceptions down the rabbit hole. This kinda puts them on the fringe in and of itself.

Scientists produce advances from which mankind can either benefit or suffer; how a discovery gets used is often a matter of walking a fine line. This makes people (aka non-scientists) uneasy, like @flutherother said.

Take this reality and pour on the Hollywood zazz, and there’s your stereotypical “mad scientist”! :D

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