Pioneers of Power

Alessandro Volta

1745 - 1827

The invention, in 1800, of the electric battery and the discovery of current electricity, by Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist and university professor, was a turning point in electrochemistry.

Volta was born on February 18th, 1745, in Como, Italy. His parents had hopes that he would enter the priesthood, but he was more interested in pursuing studies in electricity.

At the Royal Seminary in Como, he studied chemistry and released his first paper on electricity in 1769.

In 1774 he took up the position of Professor of Physics at the Royal School in Como. In the same year he made a significant contribution to electrical science when he unveiled his latest invention - the electrophorus. This device utilised the principle of electrostatic induction to provide a source of electrical potential. It produced electrical charges more efficiently by induction than by simple friction.

In 1779, Volta became Professor of Physics and Natural Philosophy at the University of Pavia, a position he held for 25 years. In 1782 he joined the French Academy of Sciences.

Several years later he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London and it was this Society that recognised him for his contributions to electricity and chemistry in 1794. He was also a receiptant of the Society's famous Copley Medal.

In 1800, he forwarded a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society of London, laying out his experiments and of his latest discovery. He had produced a device that could produce a continuous and steady source of electricity - the battery.

Research into electricity up until this time had been primarily focused with static electricity and with the electrical effects of friction. Volta's "Temple" at Como, Italy

The discovery of the battery and of current electricity followed on from the works of another famous Italian, Luigi Galvani who, in 1780, had been experimenting with leg muscle stimulation in freshly killed frogs. He found that the frogs' legs contracted when contacted by a scalpel connected to a nearby electrical machine. Galvani had concluded that the electricity emanated from the frogs but Volta disagreed with this as his experiments proved otherwise. He concluded that the electricity came from the presence of two metals coming into contact with the frog's nerve thus producing an electrical circuit. Volta believed the two metals were not just conductors but actually had generated the electricity themselves.

He declared in 1794, that the metals "are in a real sense the exciters of electricity, while the nerves themselves are passive". He named this new type of electricity "contact" or "metallic".

Volta also discovered that when two dissimilar metals come into contact with certain fluids an electrical current is produced. He demonstrated this with a piece of copper and a piece of zinc with acid between them. Electric pressure was increased when the "pile" of these cells was increased.

The "pile" as Volta named it, was the first electric battery and the first device to produce electricity without the use of friction.

Napoleon was so impressed by Volta's experiments that he persuaded him to repeat them in Paris and to exhibit his battery at the Institute of France. Napoleon made Volta a Count and bestowed a gold medal on him in Paris.

Volta's experiments and discovered were an inspiration to many other scientists who followed him in performing experiments with electricity.

Volta died in Como on March 5th, 1927. To honour his memory, the unit of electrical pressure, the volt, was named after him. He left the scientific community a firm foundation for future experiments and advancements in electricity and for his great achievements - he will long be remembered.

Article by Catharine Davis in Electrical World, June 2004.

Refs:
The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography, Vol. 2, 1973.
Collier's Encyclopedia, Vol 23, 1992.
B Morgan, Men and Discoveries in Electricity, London, 1952.
R.A.R. Tricker, Early Electrodynamics, The First Law of Circulation, 1965.
De Ville, Electricity, 1955.