By Robert Hazen, Ph.D., George Mason University
Alessandro Volta, the Italian physicist invented the battery, marking a turning point in the study of electrical sciences. For the first time, researchers could rely on a reliable source of electricity that flowed continuously. What were the consequences of this invention and how did it contribute to the study of electricity?
Early Life of Alessandro Volta
Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta was the fifth of five sons born to an impoverished family of lesser nobility in northern Italy. At first, young Alessandro was a slow child, and he began to speak only in his fourth year. But soon afterwards, he advanced rapidly in school. He showed a flair for foreign languages, even though he didn’t speak when he was very young.
Electrophorus – The Early Invention
Volta began experimental studies on electricity when he was still a teenager. He gained fame for his invention of the electrophorus—a device that held electrostatic charge and transferred it from one object to another. Shortly thereafter, he was offered a professorship in physics at the University of Pavia where he spent the rest of his career.
Learn more about electromagnetism.
The Volta Galvani Connection
Volta’s most important contributions followed discoveries of his fellow countryman, the anatomist Luigi Galvani, who lived from 1737 to 1798. Galvani claimed that when copper and iron wires were inserted into different parts of a dead frogs’ legs, the two wires touched together and caused the legs to convulse.
The anatomist interpreted this new electrical phenomenon in terms of animal electricity, which he thought was intrinsic to biological tissues. However, the physicist Volta thought differently and was soon convinced that it was the juxtaposition of these two different metals that led to the electrical phenomenon, which he called metallic electricity.
Volta’s focus was on the metallic elements of Galvani’s experiment than the biological components. This interpretation did lead to much controversy between the advocates of animal electricity and metallic electricity, but eventually turned in favor of Volta.
Volta’s Electrochemical Series
Volta found that different pairs of metals produced different degrees of effect and established a very clear sequence. This sequence, known as electrochemical series, starts with zinc at one extreme followed by tin, lead, iron, copper, platinum, gold, and silver. So, the farther apart the two metals are in the electrochemical series, the greater the effect.
Learn more about the first law of thermodynamics.
Beginning of the Study of Electricity
Volta’s view soon prevailed as he could establish that if two rods of different metals were put into an acidic bath, an electric potential would form between those two rods. In other words, electrical potential energy could be stored by having these two pieces of metal in an acid bath. These moving electrons and electric charges had the ability to do work.
And this is the beginning of the study of electricity, the study of moving electrons. For Volta, the next step was a very logical one. He devised arrangements in which different metals were kept in contact and studied various configurations.
Volta found that electricity could be produced by just stacking alternate layers or discs of metals zinc and silver in a saltwater bath that would allow current to flow. This was the invention of the battery, the device described in Volta’s article on the electricity in 1800.
This is a transcript from the video series The Joy of Science. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Turning point in the Study of Electrical Sciences
Volta’s battery marked a turning point in the study of electrical sciences. For the first time, researchers could rely on a steady source of electricity, a reliable source of electricity that continuously flowed, as opposed to transient sparks and discharges.
Surprisingly, Volta’s very first experiments were not on an inorganic physical system, but rather on the human body itself. For example, he tried his electrical effects on the tongue. He said that when you applied the two electrodes to your tongue, you sometimes tasted a strange, bitter taste. Pain and convulsions could also be produced if you put the electrodes in certain parts of your body. So, he experimented on both humans and animals.
Volta’s Contribution to Electro Medical Devices
Volta’s experiments contributed a great deal to the development of electro medical devices, especially home remedies. These devices were sold in such large numbers that it began to be considered conventional wisdom that electricity was one of the ways of curing the human body.
By the end of the 19th century home energy devices, which could produce an electric charge by turning a crank and electrodes placed on various parts of the body to soothe headaches or other muscle aches of various sorts, were available in huge numbers.
Volta’s Battery in Chemical Research
Volta’s battery and its successor proved invaluable in chemical research as well. Two British chemists, William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle constructed their own very crude battery. They used 36 silver coins, silver half-crowns and interspersed them with 36 discs of zinc. The chemists immersed their silver-zinc battery into an acid bath and for the first time they were able to break down water, H2O, into hydrogen plus oxygen.
This was a very important way for chemists to understand the constituents of nature. Batteries were also used to decompose many minerals and other substances. This led to the discovery of many new elements.
Improvisation of the battery by Sir Humphrey Davy
The flamboyant English chemist and science lecturer Humphrey Davy constructed a mammoth battery with 2,000 double plates. Davy created an extremely dangerous array that produced a huge voltage and a very large amount of electrical energy.
In 1810, Davy became the first person to demonstrate electric lighting when he vaporized rods of charcoal, platinum ,and other material in blinding incandescent displays. He hooked up his battery to the pieces of material high above the auditorium or high above the floor and they would burst into flames. They created a blazing light for as long as they were able to before they just vaporized.
The same principle is today used in electric arc welding and light bulbs where when you pass a strong current through any material, it can heat up and glow.
Learn more about magnetism and static electricity.
Common Questions about Contributions of Alessandro Volta and Invention of the Battery
Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta was the fifth of five sons born to an impoverished family of lesser nobility in northern Italy. He went on to become a famous Italian physicist, and invented the battery.
Volta’s view on metallic electricity prevailed over Galvani’s view of animal electricity because his electrical effects could be produced independently of frog’s legs or any other biological material.
Volta’s battery marked a turning point in the study of electrical sciences because researchers were able to rely on a steady and reliable for the first time.
The chemists were able to decompose an breakdown many minerals and other substances using batteries . This led to the discovery of many new elements and was an important way for chemists to understand the composition of nature.