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Alessandro Volta

inventor of the battery

Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta was born in Como, Lombardy, Italy, on February 18, 1745. His parents sent him to a Jesuit school with the intention that he would become a jurist, but he chose the sciences instead.

Alessandro Volta

In 1774 Volta became professor of physics at the Royal School in Como. His passion had always been the study of electricity, and in 1775 he devised the electrophorus, a device that produced charges of static electricity. The device soon superseded the Leyden Jar as the most commonly used method of storing electricity. The electrophorus consisted of a metal plate coated with a substance called ebonite, and a second metal plate with an insulated handle. Holding the metal plate by the insulated handle above the charged ebonite, Volta found that the negative charge in the ebonite attracted a positive charge in the lower surface of the plate, leaving a negative charge in its upper surface. Volta also found that this negative charge could be drained away by means of a metal wire connecting the upper surface of the plate to the earth, leaving an overall positive charge on the plate. By repeating the process, he built up large quantities of positive charge. Today the electrophorus is the basis of the condenser, the device used for storing electricity in electric currents.

left: diagram of Volta's electrophorus
right: Volta's electrophorus

diagram of Volta's electrophorusVolta's electrophorus

Applying himself to chemistry between 1776 and 1777, Volta studied the chemistry of gases, discovered methane, and devised experiments such as the ignition of gases by an electric spark in a closed vessel.

In 1779 Volta became professor of physics at the University of Pavia, a position he held for the next 25 years. In 1794 he married Teresa Peregrini, daughter of Count Ludovico Peregrini, with whom he raised three sons.

The Voltaic Pile with which Volta is most commonly associated was developed by him in 1800, as the result of a professional disagreement over the galvanic response advocated by Luigi Galvani. Galvani had found that if two different metals were brought into contact in the presence of animal muscles, an electric current was generated. Galvani believed that the current was a kind of "animal electricity" contained in the tissue and released by the touch of the metals. Volta, however, believed it should be possible to generate the current without the tissue, and began a series of experiments to test his hypothesis. He eventually determined that the most effective pair of dissimilar metals to produce electricity was copper and zinc. This led to the first working battery, which used several bowls of a salt solution connected by a wire cord that dipped from one bowl into the next. One end of the cord was copper and the other zinc and when they made contact, a current was produced. The Voltaic Pile replaced this rather unwieldy apparatus by using a series of small round plates of copper and zinc. Each pair of dissimilar metal plates was kept apart by a cardboard disk soaked in salt water. Voltaic Piles became the first convenient source of electric current, and led directly to the discovery of the phenomenon of electrolysis and enabled rapid progress to be made in the study of the laws governing electricity.

left: drawing of Volta's 'battery'
right: a Voltaic Pile on display at the Volta Temple in Como

drawing of Volta's 'battery'a Voltaic Pile on display at the Volta Temple in Como

In honor of his work in the field of electricity, Napoleon Bonaparte made him a Count in 1810. In 1815, the Emperor of Austria named him a professor of philosophy at Padova. Five volumes of Volta's works were published in 1816, in Florence.

Volta retired from his work in 1819, and died in Como on March 5, 1827.

The Tempio Voltiano, near Lake Como, is a museum devoted to explaining Volta's work; his original instruments and papers are on display there. The building, along with Volta's portrait, appeared on the Italian 10.000 lira banknote until introduction of the euro. The volt, a unit of electrical potential, was officially named in his honor in 1881. Volta Crater on the Moon is named in his honor.

Anthony Feldman and Peter Ford. Scientists & Inventors, The People Who Made Technology from Earliest Times to Present Day. New York: Facts on File, 1979

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This page was last updated on 02/17/2017.