Mad scientists have haunted science fiction since Mary Shelley created Victor Frankenstein in the 1810s. But what kinds of research have fictional mad scientists done since? I was determined to find out. This chart shows what I discovered.
With the help of my mad research colleagues Kelly Faircloth and Mary Ratliff, we began an investigation into as many works of science fiction as we could find that featured a mad scientist. We looked for books, comics, movies, and TV shows - mostly in English. Though we certainly didn't find everything, we did wind up poring over more than 200 sources. After some debate, we divided the areas of mad science up into 10 categories: biology, chemistry, mechanical engineering (crazy machines), nuclear, physics, pseudoscience (ghosts and such), multidisciplinary, biotechnology, psychology, and neuroscience (brains!).
So what did we discover? First of all, mad scientists have obviously grown in popularity a great deal since the nineteenth century. Of all the sciences, biology seems to enjoy the most adherence from the maniacal - followed closely by its sister discipline, biotechnology. It's interesting to note that big spike in mad scientists researching biology during the 1910s and 20s - this would have been the era when cinema and pulp fiction were gaining traction, and along with them "scientifiction" stories. It was also a time of great medical and biological experimentation in the west.
Some unsurprising findings: Nuclear research gets crazy after the 1950s, as does physics. Mechanical engineering, with its focus on huge industrial machines or tiny nanobits, is a perfect research topic for the maniacal - especially if they are planning to build a robot army. Though we found no mad software developers (sorry, global staff of Google, we're only looking at fiction here), we did find plenty of people who wanted to control the world with gadgets, and we lumped them in with their mechanical engineering cohort.
Also, it's interesting to see that although biology has gotten incredibly popular among the crazed, chemistry is one of the longest-standing fascinations for mad scientists. We see our first crazy chemists in the 1830s, and though there is never a big spike in chemistry's allure for the insane, it's always bubbling there in the background. Mad chemistry never goes out of style.
Chart by the amazing Stephanie Fox!
Additional research by Kelly Faircloth and Mary Ratliff
Appendix One: The Numbers
Here is how we broke our scientists down, decade-by-decade:
1810-1819: 1 biology
1830-1839: 1 chemistry
1840-1849: 1 chemistry, 1 biology
1870-1879: 1 mechanical engineering
1880-1889: 1 chemistry, 1 biology
1890-1899: 3 chemistry, 1 biology
1900-1909: 2 mechanical engineer, 1 physics, 1 chemistry
1910-1919: 1 mechanical engineering, 3 biology
1920-1929: 1 chemistry, 1 psychology, 7 biology, 1 psuedoscience, 1
nueroscience, 3 mechanical engineer
1930-1940: 4 Biotech; 2 chemistry
1940-1950 4 Mechanical Engineering; 1 Psychology
1950-1960 3 Mechanical Engineering / High Technology; 1 Biotech; 1
Neuroscience; 2 Nuclear; 1 Physics; 1 Psychology
1960-1970 6 Biology; 9 Mechanical Engineering / High Technology; 2
Biotech; 2 Nuclear; 4 Physics; 1 Multidisciplinary; 1 Chemistry
1970-1980 6 Biology; 2 Mechanical Engineering / High Technology; 7
Biotech; 2 Physics; 5 Multidisciplinary; 1 Psychology
1980-1990 1 Biology; 5 Mechanical Engineering / High Technology; 2
Biotech; 4 Neuroscience; 3 Nuclear; 5 Physics; 1 Pseudoscience; 1
1990-2000 8 Biology; 9 Mechanical Engineering / High Technology; 9
Biotech; 4 Physics; 2 Pseudoscience
2000-2010 9 Biology; 5 Mechanical Engineering / High Technology; 8
Biotech; 1 Neuroscience; 1 Nuclear; 6 Physics; 5 Pseudoscience; 2
Multidisciplinary; 1 Chemistry; 1 Psychology
Appendix Two: The Texts
Here are all the works we consulted, in handy PDF format.