Alessandro Volta: Profile in Engineering

It’s hard to imagine life as we know it without our use of batteries. Though the technology of batteries has evolved, the essence of creating a circuit of a positive and negative charge has not changed since the days of the first physicist who invented it. Our modern lives and amenities would not be nearly as effective as without this man’s contributions. This was none other than Italian Engineer Alessandro Volta. He may not be as famous as other pioneers in physics, but his discoveries were monumental in his time and allowed for the electrical ingenuity that we enjoy today. Batteries power our cars, computers, phones and so many more gadgets we have come to rely on. Understanding the discoveries of Volta can help us appreciate his efforts, as well as continue to advance our technology.

Alessandro Volta, Italian Physicist Photograph by Sheila Terry
Count Alessandro Volta, Inventor of the Battery (1745-1827)

Many in the United States admire the stories of underdogs rising to greatness from humble beginnings, and Alessandro Volta is another example of this success story. Born in 1745 in Como, Italy into a poor family, he was the sixth of seven children. He did not show signs of brilliance as a child, only learning to speak fluently when he was seven years old. His family wanted him to become a lawyer, but young Alessandro soon turned his childish excitement towards the natural sciences. As a teenager, he left school early to follow a more specialized career in physics. He had been interested in electricity throughout this time, and this early research would lay the foundation for his groundbreaking inventions (Checchini).

Even before Volta invented the first battery in 1800, he had already established himself as a great physicist renowned in his time. One such achievement was improving the perpetual electrophorus, a device that generated a static charge that could be transferred to other objects. Volta’s version of the device then became a mainstay in 17th century laboratories for its reliable production of charges (National). He went on to venture into chemistry, discovering how to isolate methane after observing it bubbling up in marshes. This added credence to the hypothesis of methane’s organic origin. As if that wasn’t enough, his further experiments with gas resulted in the Voltaic Pistol, a device that exploded gas inside the chamber to launch a plunger from the barrel. While it seemed odd on the surface, this use of gas paved the way for inventions like the hydrogen lamp, telegraph, and combustion engine (Museo Galileo).

Volta would have been known as a great physicist with these discoveries alone, but his invention of the battery assured his place among the elite pioneers in physics. The origin of his invention began after debate with rival physicist Luigi Galvani in the 1780s. Galvani believed he had discovered animals could produce electricity through his experimentation with frog legs. Volta, however, had the intuition that the metals used in the experiments produced electricity, while the frog legs simply reacted to them. Volta then set his sights on disproving Galvani’s hypothesis. He toiled throughout the proceeding years with different metals and liquids, seeing if he could conduct electricity independent of any animal tissue. These efforts paid off with the introduction of the Voltaic Pile in 1800.

The Voltaic Pile was a stack of alternating zinc and silver pieces, with brine soaked cloth between each layer. By connecting both ends with a wire, electricity flowed through a closed circuit and the world’s first battery was born. This immediately scent waves through the scientific community, launching Volta into the stratosphere. He was invited to France and awarded many honors at the behest of Napoleon himself, receiving the title of Count in 1814. But even the fall of Napoleon did not affect Volta’s reputation, as the Empire of Austria would soon appoint him to prestigious positions after. Volta died in 1827, and the SI unit for electric potential was named the volt in his honor (Cecchini).

Society has benefitted from Volta’s efforts, and has been able to improve on the original Voltaic style of battery significantly. Today, batteries come on many shapes and sizes, and the applications of new metals and plastics allow them to fit into practically any device. Volta’s model was held back by the lifespan of the battery. Eventually, the Voltaic Pile would need to be replaced after too much use, and this is still a limitation we have today. Think about how we always need to put new batteries in our cars or controllers, or need to recharge a battery via an outlet. Volta’s first battery was not the most practical and did not light up the world overnight, but it proved that harnessing raw materials to generate electricity was possible, and has led to some of the great inventions we enjoy every hour of every day (Massachusetts).

Count Volta’s contributions to physics are apparent, but the aforementioned underdog story is another reason he should be remembered. Moving upward in 17th Century Europe is exceptionally hard, with much less of the opportunity and access to knowledge we have in the 21st Century. Volta never seemed to let this get in his way. He found science and engineering at an early age, and made it his mission. He made connections with the right people and worked with real scientists as soon as he could. It was his vehicle out of the lower class and into greatness.

Another note is what he can represent to Italians today. A son of Italy discovered the device that drives so much of our modern day, and this should be a great source of pride to Italians and their descendants across the world.

Alessandro Volta was a true student of the natural world, and an engineer to be admired. He did not let his status or his family’s wishes of a different profession prevent him from pursuing his interests. He saw physics for what it was, a way to understand our world and advance ourselves. He didn’t leave his desires to a purely academic pursuit of science, and applied his determination to engineering the first battery, and changing the world from that point on. As we continue to investigate and engineer in the field of electricity, we should maintain the excitement and optimism for discovery as Volta did as a child and as an adult. And perhaps the next time we change a battery, we can think of this Italian Count and how his tenacity made our lives so much better.

Sources

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (n.d.). Alessandro Volta. Lemelson. Retrieved September 26,   2021, from https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/alessandro-volta.

Museo Galileo. (n.d.). Voltaic Pistol. catalogue.museogalileo.it. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from        https://catalogue.museogalileo.it/multimedia/VoltaicPistolBis.html.

National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. (n.d.). Electrophorus – 1764. MagLab. Retrieved September        26, 2021, from https://nationalmaglab.org/education/magnet-academy/history-of-electricity-    magnetism/museum/electrophorus.

R. Cecchini and G. Pelosi, “Alessandro Volta and his battery,” in IEEE Antennas and Propagation      Magazine, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 30-37, April 1992, doi: 10.1109/74.134307.             https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/134307/citations?tabFilter=papers

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