Biography of Famous Scientist Alessandro Volta Part 2

About the famous scientist Alessandro Volta, history and biography of the man who made the first battery and coined the word volt.


Alessandro Volta (1745-1827)

At Pavia, Volta read of Galvani's experiment with the frogs. (See "Accidental Scientific Discoveries," this chapter.) He was interested enough to repeat it himself, only to disprove the Bologna professor's theories and to become the focal point of the opposing school of thought, which gained adherents all over Europe. In 1791 he was elected to the Royal Society and three years later became the first foreigner ever to be awarded the society's Copley Medal.

In his experiments with metals, Volta found that some were more easily stimulated to generate electricity than others; he drew up a list (later known as the electrochemical series) placing them in their order of effectiveness. From this he was able to formulate one of the most important laws of electrical science--that when two metals are joined, the further apart they are in the list, the more electrically effective they will prove to be. Thus it was that when he built his famous "pile," he chose plates of zinc (highest on his list) and silver (near the bottom), alternating them with moist pads, and stacking them until he had eight to ten such sandwiches. When the bottom and top of the pile were touched with a conductor, a strong electric force was produced; he had made the first battery. He wrote of his discovery to the president of the Royal Society and spent many anxious moments waiting for his letter to cross France and reach England at a time when those two countries were at war.

Soon after the publication of his discovery, the newly formed National Institute of France invited Volta to come to Paris to lecture. This he did, and remained there four months, becoming the talk of Paris by virtue of his good looks, brilliance, and charm. He gave three lectures, which Napoleon himself attended. Dressed in the robes of an academician, the first consul personally helped Volta to decompose water into its elements by the use of electricity from his pile. His audience was enthusiastic, and Napoleon was so delighted that he made Volta a member of the institute, then a knight, and finally a count and a senator from Lombardy. Victor Hugo writes of Napoleon's entering the library of the National Institute, seeing the inscription Au Grand Voltaire on the wall, and then crossing out the last three letters.

Volta did not marry until late in life, because his intended was the youngest of the seven daughters of Count Ludovico Peregrini, and husbands for the elder six had to be found first. When Volta proposed to retire from the University of Pavia to devote himself to his sons' education, Napoleon wrote disapprovingly, "A good general ought to die on the field of honor." As Napoleon was by then emperor of Italy as well as of France, Volta took the hint. He was rewarded when Napoleon visited his class and eulogized him before his assembled students.

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