Alessandro Volta: Biography from

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Toyota Alessandro Volta

Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Volta

Volta, Alessandro Antonio Anastasio, Count

[b. (Italy), February 18, 1745, d. March 5, 1827]


The Italian physicist Alessandro (1745-1827) invented the electric or voltaic pile, thus for the first time a sustained of current electricity.

Alessandro was born on Feb. 18, 1745, in He resisted pressure from his to enter the priesthood and developed an intense curiosity about phenomena, in particular, electricity. In he published his first paper on It contained no new discoveries but is of some as the most speculative of all Volta’s his subsequent ones being almost exclusively to the presentation of experimental discoveries.

Early and Inventions

In 1774 Volta was professor of physics at the gymnasium in and that same year he his first important contribution to the of electricity, the invention of the electrophorus. a which provided a source of potential utilizing the principle of induction. Unlike earlier of electric potential, such as the jar. the electrophorus provided a easily replenishable source of electricity. In 1782 Volta the application of the electrophorus to the detection of electrical charges. His invention of the condensing electroscope culminated his to improve the sensitivity of earlier

During these same Volta also conducted of a purely chemical nature. He had for time been experimenting exploding various gases, as hydrogen, in closed containers and had that when hydrogen and air exploded there was a diminution in greater than the volume of burned. In order to measure changes in volume, he developed a glass container, now known as a in which to explode the gases. this eudiometer he studied gas, or methane. and distinguished it hydrogen by its different-colored flame, its rate of combustion, and the greater of air and larger electric spark for detonation .

In 1779 Volta was to the newly created chair of at the University of Pavia. In 1782 he a corresponding member of the French of Sciences. In 1791 he was elected a of the Royal Society of London, and in in recognition of his contributions to electricity and he was awarded the society’s coveted Medal. However, his most researches — those were to lead to the discovery of electricity — were yet to be

Discovery of Current Electricity

the last decade of the 18th electrical researchers had been concerned with static with the electrification produced by Then, in 1786, Luigi discovered that the muscles in a amputated leg would contract an electrical machine was discharged the leg. As a result of his initial Galvani undertook a long of experiments in an effort to more examine this startling In the course of these investigations he that a frog’s prepared leg be made to contract if he merely a copper hook to the nerve and then pressed the hook an iron plate on which the leg was so as to complete an electrical circuit, though no electrical machines operating in the vicinity. Galvani the contraction was produced in the organism and referred to this new type of as animal electricity.

Galvani’s experiments and interpretation summarized in a paper published in a copy of which he sent to Although, like most initially convinced by Galvani’s Volta gradually came to the that the two metals were not conductors but actually generated the themselves. He began by repeating and Galvani’s experiments but quickly beyond these to experiments of his concentrating on the results of bringing contact two dissimilar metals. By he had convinced himself that the in his own words, are in a real sense the of electricity, while the nerves are passive, and he henceforth referred to new type of electricity as metallic or electricity.

Toyota Alessandro Volta

The announcement of Volta’s and interpretation touched off one of the great in the history of science. Although factors were important as the physiologists and anatomists tended to Galvani’s view that the was produced by the animal tissue whereas the physicists and chemists, Volta, tended to see it as produced by the bimetallic contacts. The resulting not only took on international but died out only gradually more than a decade. Galvani withdrew from the allowing others to carry his Volta took an active in the controversy and vigorously pursued his

Volta discovered that not would two dissimilar metals in produce a small electrical but metals in contact with types of fluids would produce such effects. In the best results were when two dissimilar metals held in contact and joined by a third body which, in terminology, completed the circuit them. Such observations led to the construction in 1800 of the electric or pile as Volta called it, the source of a significant electric

Volta announced his discovery in a to Sir Joseph Banks, then of the Royal Society of London. The dated March 20, 1800, an instant sensation. Here for the time was an instrument capable of a steady, continuous flow of All previous electrical machines, Volta’s electrophorus, had produced short bursts of static The ability to create at will a electrical current opened new fields for investigation, and the significance of discovery was immediately recognized.

Acclaim and Retirement

Volta was to Paris by Napoleon and in 1801 a series of lectures on his discoveries the National Institute of France, as the of Sciences was then called. A gold medal was struck to the occasion, and the following year was distinguished by election as one of the eight associates of the institute.

Although in his mid-50s when he announced the of the pile, Volta took no in applying his discovery to any of the immense new it opened up. During the last 25 of his life he demonstrated none of the creativity that had characterized his researches, and he published nothing of significance during these years. He continued, at the urging of to teach at the University of Pavia and became director of the philosophy there. In 1819 he retired to his home near Como. He there on March 5, 1827, realizing that current would eventually transform a way of

Further Reading

Recommended for details on Volta is the excellent treatment in Bern Dibner, Volta and the Electric Battery A good historical account of the of the age of electricity is in F. Sherwood Taylor, A History of Science and Scientific (1949), and Bern Dibner, A Controversy That Led to the Discovery of Electricity (1952).

Toyota Alessandro Volta
Toyota Alessandro Volta


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