The Volcano That Spawned a Monster
On April 10, 1815, the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history helped prompt the creation of the most famous monster in world history.
Situated in the middle of the Lesser Sunda Island chain is the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. Covering an area over 15,000 square kilometers, the island hosts natural forests, archeological sites, agricultural scenery and numerous pristine beaches. Recreational activities include surfing, adventure fishing, sailing and under sea exploration.
On the Sanggar penisula looms Mount Tambora. At almost 9,000 feet it is one of the largest peaks in the Indonesian archipelago. It is an active stratovolcano, which are also known as composite volcanoes. Mount Tambora’s last eruption, a small, non-explosive event, occurred in 1967.
April 1815 was an entirely different story.
The first explosions from Mount Tambora were heard the evening of April 5th. According to the memoir of Sir Thomas Raffles (known as the ‘Father of Singapore’) the sounds were first attributed to distant cannon fire. Ships and troops were dispatched to investigate. On the morning of the 6th volcanic ash began to fall on East Java.
Around 7 PM on April 10th the mountain erupted with an estimated scale of Seven on the Volcanic Explosivity Index ... a reading FOUR times the energy of the famous 1883 Krakatoa eruption. The top five thousand feet of Mount Tambora was blown into the sky. The explosion was heard over 1,600 miles away ... imagine a blast in New York City being heard as far away as Denver, Colorado. Ash fell as far away as 800 miles.
Mount Tambora ejected an estimated 100 to 150 cubic kilometers of ash and debris into the atmosphere. In comparison, the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens tossed ‘only’ one or two cubic kilometers into the atmosphere. The sulfur dioxide spewed into the stratosphere began a long, suffocating journey around the Earth, leading to what became known as ‘The Year Without Summer’ in 1816 ... and the birth of the most famous literary monster ever created.
The 200 million tons of sulfur dioxide Mount Tambora ejected into the stratosphere slowly circled the Earth and disrupted weather patterns throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Particularly affected in the summer of 1816 were Western Europe, Canada and the Northeast United States, and Asia. The reduced amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface lowered temperatures, causing crop failures and leading to mass famine.
Europe suffered food shortages that caused riots in France and the United Kingdom. Famine in Switzerland prompted the government to declare a national emergency. Abnormal amounts of rainfall caused the flooding of most European rivers. Frost formed in July and August. Europe suffered an estimated 200,000 deaths due to ‘The Year Without Summer’.
In June of 1816 literary giants Lord Byron and Percey Shelley, along with friends and family, managed a ‘summer’ getaway to the Swiss village of Cologny. Included among the group staying at the Villa Diodati, which overlooked Lake Geneve, was Shelley’s wife, Mary.
The unusually bad weather (described as ‘melodramatically tempestuous’) prolonged the vacationer’s stay and forced them to remain indoors. On the evening of the 16th the group amused themselves reading German ghost stories. Lord Byron challenged the members of the group to write their own horror stories.
While the others wrote at least minor tidbits, the uninspired Mary Shelley wrote nothing. On the night of the 21st the group discussion centered on the topic from ‘deStaeis De l’Allemagne’ concerning ‘whether the principle of life could be discovered and whether scientists could galvanize a corpse of a manufactured humanoid’. That night Mary awoke from a nightmare and began writing.
What began as a short story was lengthened into a novel that took almost a year to complete.
On January 1st, 1818, the novel that sprang out of a nightmare from a woman stranded indoors because of weather patterns altered by the greatest volcanic explosion in recorded history was finally published. The title? ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’, by Mary Shelley.