Alexander Volta and the First Battery 7 pages

Alexander Volta and the First Battery

Some evidence suggests the use of primitive batteries in Iraq and Egypt as far back as 200 BC for electroplating and precious metal gilding (Rubin, 2011). Extant records suggest that magnetism and electricity first stirred curiosity in 600 BC, one of them the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (HBCI, 2010). He observed that when amber was rubbed, it would attract light objects. He already knew that lodestone could attract iron. The terms “electricity” and “magnetism” were, in fact, drawn from the Greek word, which means “amber,” and “magnet” from Magnesia, a place where lodestone could be found. He associated the concepts of these two at that time. He and other scientists believed that magnets were “living rocks” with souls (Rubin, HBCI).

Franklin’s miraculous invention, the condenser, which he called “battery” was the evolutionary link between the brief sparks he observed emanating from the Leyden jar and the voltaic cell (HBCI, 2010). He assumed on the existence of a basic charge. This assumption developed directly into the concept of electrons moving through conductors. He organized and unified his gathered disorderly existing knowledge to form a base for ensuing advances. Other scientists contributed but did not build on what he had worked on. In 1749, he suggested the sameness between lightning and electricity and reported this concept a year later to Peter Collinson of the Royal Society. It was three years later in 1752 that Franklin conducted his legendary kite experiment and eventually connected with Volta’s major and lasting contribution to science. The discovery of electricity entranced people of the 18th century through his kite experiment marvel, which drew electricity from lightning in 1752 (Corrosion Doctors, 2011). Leyden jars were invented in 1746 and used to store, charge and produce electricity. Doctors soon took advantage and used electric shocks to treat illnesses. But there rose a need for continuous electrical current, which became available only with the invention of the first electric pile by Alessandro Volta in his time. It became the forerunner of the modern battery (Corrosion Doctors).

Life Background

Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasioo Volta was born on February 18, 1745 in the own of Como in Lombardy, Italy (CIRL, 2011; Rubin, 2011; Scratch, 2011; Corrosion Doctors, 2011). Although part of the aristocracy, his family was not considered wealthy. His father died when Volta was only 7, leaving him and his education in the care of church-going relatives. They logically aimed at an ecclesiastical career for him. Yet he took a different path and passion towards science. From his teen years, he communicated his scientific ideas to French physicist Jean-Antoine Nollet and known Italian men of science. His interest was clearly electricity. His first published treatise was entitled, “De vi attractive ignis electrici,” in 1769. Another work was published two years later on a new type of electrostatic generator he created. His early works gained him recognition and an academic teaching appointment at the Liceo of Como in 1774. The following year, he intimated the description of another invention, the perpetual electrophorus, to Joseph Priestley. The principle of electrostatic induction was already known then. Volta’s electrophorus drew from the principle and was the first practical instrument for translating mechanical work into electrostatic charge without need for constant rubbing. The invention was quickly accepted and used by laboratories in Europe and brought renown to Volta (CIRL, Rubin, Scratch, & Corrosion Doctors).

Volta was also interested in and studied gases (CIRL, 2011). His interest was fired during a visit to Lake Maggiore in 1776 by water bubble when he stirred mud beneath. He collected some of the gas formed by the bubbles for study in his laboratory. That gas became known as methane, the main component of marsh gas. Volta found that this gas was highly flammable. It led to another novel apparatus, the pistol, a predecessor of the internal combustion engine. He found that it could produce a kind of safe explosion in a closed setting. He used the pistol to measure the force of gaseous explosions and amount of oxygen in combustible air samples. It developed into an eudiometer (CIRL).

He was offered and accepted to teach natural philosophy at the University of Pavia in 1779 (CIRL, 2011; Rubin, 2011; Scratch, 2011; Corrosion Doctors, 2011). At the University of Bologna at about the same time, another renowned Italian scientist, Luigi Galvani, was also experimenting on electricity. Galvani worked on dissected frogs. He noticed that the dismembered legs of the frogs were quickened by certain stimuli. These stimuli were an electrical storm and the touch of a steel scalpel against something hanging from a brass hook. He assumed that electricity is naturally present in the tissues of frogs and other animals. He published these observations on animal electricity in 1791. Some critics accepted his observations and others rejected. Volta was among his most open opponents and he conducted experiments to look for another explanation to Galvani’s discovery (CIRL, Rubin, Scratch, Corrosion Doctors).

At first, he accepted Galvani’s theory concerning animal electricity as demonstrated by the involuntary movements of Galvani’s frogs (Scratch, 2011). But repeat test results showed something else. Volta discovered that something else brought about the contractions of the legs of the frogs. It was not something emanating from the body of the frogs but from some external electricity. This external electricity was produced by two different metals in an arc when in contact with the damp frogs. He saw the frogs functioning merely as a simple and sensitive electroscope. In addition to repeating Galvani’s experiments, Volta noticed some other effects involving dissimilar metals when they come into contact with moist substances. He found that if two different metals touched the tongue and were brought into contact, a bitter taste resulted. And when two metals touched the eye, contact between them created the sensation of light. After all these experiments, Volta was soon convinced that the metals not only served as conductors but also generated electricity when they were brought into contact (Scratch).

The 1800 Scenario

The year was a time of social, political and scientific developments (HBCI, 2010). Experiments in electrical science were few and short until the arrival of Galvani and Volta into the scene. As it was in many scientific investigations, the electrical machine invented by Galvani was a mere accident. Galvani proposed something, which angered his critics. Both sides engaged in heated debate, each condemning the other of heresy. By the time Volta’s argument prevailed but Galvani could not benefit from it because he died in 1798. It was in that year that electricity was to peak on new grounds. Volta invented his pile, which was to evolve into one of the major scientific discoveries and to earn him much popularity and distinction (HIBC).

Although his invention brought him much honor and fame, Volta preferred to live a quiet life (CIRL, 2011; Rubin, 2011; Scratch, 2011; Corrosion Doctors, 2011). He soon gave up most of his researches and teaching to live his last years in a country house. He died on March 5, 1827 at age 82. His portrait has appeared in currency and stamps and his contribution to science is made immortal by the assigning of his name, volt, as the unit of electrical current (CIRL, Rubin, Scratch, Corrosion Doctors).

His Battery Process

Volta’s greatest scientific contribution is the voltaic pile, which accidentally grew out of his attempt to disprove Galvani’s finding on animal electricity (Corrosion Doctors, 2011; CIRL, 2011; Rubin 2011; Scratch, 2011). Volta argued hat the frogs’ muscles were only reacting to the electricity rather than producing it. Their dispute became a centerpiece at the Italian scientific community and divided it. He disputed that, instead of the frogs’ body parts, the metals Galvani used were generating electricity. He tested various metals by placing them on his tongue. He found that his saliva, like the frogs’ tissues, conducted electricity. To prove his point, Volta assembled alternating zinc and silver discs, separated by brine-soaked cloth. From as many as 30 disks, similar to the electric organ of the torpedo fish, he built a pile. When he connected a wire to both ends of the pile, a steady current came out. He also discovered that different types of metal changed the amount of current the metal produced. One way was adding disks to the pile (Corrosion Doctors, CIRL, Scratch, Rubin).

Volta first reported about his electric pile in a letter to Joseph Banks, then president of the Royal Society of London on March 20, 1800 (Corrosion Doctors, 2011; CIRL, 2011; Scratch, 2011; Rubin, 2011). Traveling to Paris, he demonstrated his invention, which he called an artificial electric organ, to prove that animal tissue was not needed to produce electric current. Volta’s battery was an overwhelming success. It placed Volta at the very center of the scientific community by defeating Galvani’s argument. Furthermore, Volta’s battery was immediately recognized as a useful device. In 1800, William Nicholson and Anthony Calisle used it to decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen. Sir Humpry Davy conducted the same study. It was used by Michael Faraday in the 1800s in his experiments on electromagnetism. Other inventors improved on the battery’s original design and these improvements produced telegraphs and doorbells. Napoleon Bonaparte was so impressed with the invention that he recommended honors for Volta, including making him a count in 1810 (CIRL, Rubin, Scratch, Corrosion Doctors).

From this first and crude battery evolved electrochemistry, electromagnetism, and modern applications of electricity (CIRL, 2011; Rubin, 2011; Scratch, 2011; Corrosion Doctors, 2011). Even the defeated principles of Galvani on animal electricity served as the initiative to the development of electrophysiology and modern biology. From Volta’s name came the unit of electromotive force, called volt, while from Galvani’s name was coined the galvanometer, the instrument for detecting and measuring small electric currents (CIRL, Rubin, Scratch, Corrosion Doctors).

Significance and Influence during the Industrial Revolution

It is when power is cut off that ancient means of illumination, such as candles, gas and oil lamps, get more appreciated (Lewis, 2005). These crude means were the main sources of lighting up to the late Victorian era. It took more than a century before he light bulb was invented in 1879 because of an intervening invention, which made up for the shortage or lack of illumination. This invention by Count Volta, developed in 1800, which was central to the understanding and control of that then-strange battery fluid. A milestone in human experience and for the first time, two dissimilar metals together can produce electricity in a conducting and corrosive liquid. Connecting a rod of copper and iron in an external circuit will produce electricity. When connected in a pile, large voltages can be produced. Sir Humprey Davy discovered in 1802 that placing two carbon electrodes a short distance apart would make a continuous spark jump across the gap and produce light. But this requires a high voltage to push the rods steadily into the arc as the carbon is progressively used. Davy applied the pile of batteries to decompose molten compounds and, in the process, discovered new elements including calcium and magnesium. He constructed the first electric light, using Volta’s pile, in 1820 (Scratch, 2011). His attention was, however, focused on methane gas explosions, which killed many miners in his time (Lewis).

It is now known how a batter functions. It converts chemical energy in its active material directly into electrical energy through an electrochemical oxidation-reduction reaction (Waara, 2011). Electrons move from one material to another through an internal circuit. This process was revealed by the basic principles of primary and secondary batteries from the work of Alessandro Volta. Today, the lead batter is an integral part of every car with various other applications. Volta’s invention and very valuable contribution is more than 2 centuries old. Yet it has remained unbeatable as an available power source. Approximately 75% of the world’s lead production and $30 billion accrue to these batteries (Waara).

In review, the first 40 years from the monumental 1800s when Volta invented the first batter also became the turning point in the development of practical engineering (HBCI, 2010). Dynamos and electric motors are following the trend historically set by Volta’s creation. Many more are forthcoming (HBCI). #


CIRL. Alexander Volta Center for Integrating Research & Learning: National High

Magnetic Field Laboratory, 2011. Retrieved on February 21, 2011 from

Corrosion Doctors. Alexander Volta. Corrosion, 2011. Retrieved on February 21, 2011 from

HBCI. Nature Obeys Rules, Too. Hiawatha Broadband Communications, Inc.: Hayden

Publishing Company, Inc., 2010. Retrieved on February 23, 2011 from

Lewis, Peter. Lighting the Industrial Revolution. BBC: Business Enquiries, 2005.

Retrieved on February 22, 2011 from

Rubin, Julian. The Invention of the Votaic Pile. Retrieved on February 21, 2011 from

Scratch, Lydia S. Volta, Alessandro. Chemistry Explained: Advameg, Inc., 2011.

Retrieved on February 21, 2011 from

Tretkoff, Ernie. Volta Describes the Electric Battery. APA News: American Physical

Society, 2006 from

Waara, Anneli. Cars Start due to Relativity Insciences Organization, 2011. Retrieved on February 23, 2011 from

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