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The Origins of “Volt” and the Story of Alessandro Volta

Volt, the unit for measuring the strength of an electric current, was named after Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist, and chemist who is credited with being the inventor of the electric battery (the voltaic pile) and the discoverer of Methane, only a few among his many achievements in the field of electricity and chemistry.


Early Life

Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta was born to Filippo Volta and Maria Maddalena Inzaghi on February 18th, 1745 in Como, Italy. His parents sent him to the Royal Seminary in Como, intending for him to enter the legal profession, but Alessandro had other interests and plans. From an early age, he had decided to pursue a career in physics and chemistry, and by 1763, he began a correspondence with French physicist Abbe Antoine Nollet and with Giambattista Beccaria in Turin, discussing his analogy of a connection between electrical and gravitational forces. 


A Career in the Sciences

Alessandro Volta wrote his first paper, publishing his theory on the forces of “attraction of electrical fire” in 1769. In 1774, he began teaching at the Royal Seminary in Como while continuing to pursue his research and experimentation in the field of electricity. In 1775, his interest in this field led him to invent a machine, called electrophorus, that could produce an unlimited quantity of electrostatic charge.

In 1776-77, Volta began his study of the chemistry of gases and discovered and isolated Methane in 1776, devising experiments such as the ignition of gases in a device of his design called the eudiometer.

Three years later, in 1779, he was made the chair of physics (elected Rector) at the University of Pavia.


Family Life

In 1794, Volta married Maria Teresa Peregrini, the daughter of Count Ludovico Peregrini, and the couple went on to have three children.


Invention of the Electric Battery

In 1792, with Luigi Galvani’s experiment–which traced the connection between the generation of electric currents and animals (more particularly, frogs)–Volta began studying and experimenting with metals, discovering that animal tissue wasn’t necessary to produce a current. Amidst the controversy this produced, Alessandro Volta, through his famous letter to the Royal Society, announced the invention of the electric battery on March 20th, 1800. Known as the voltaic pile (or the voltaic column), Volta’s device consisted of a cloth or paper soaked in either sodium hydroxide or salt water which separated alternating disks of either Copper and Pewter or Zinc and Silver. The battery produced a steady electromotive force and a continuous, albeit weak, electric current.

The electric battery thus set the precedent for and resulted in several important discoveries and inventions that occurred during the Industrial Revolution.


Fame and Prestige

After his invention, Volta gained fame and prestige. In 1801, he gave a demonstration of his electric battery to Napoleon Bonaparte (the then-French head of state), who recognised him for his achievements in the field of science. Impressed, Napoleon granted him a pension in 1805 and then went on to appoint him Cavalier of the Legion of Honor, followed by naming him a count in 1810. Thus, Alessandro Volta came to hold several political offices in Italy during the period between 1801 and 1812. By 1813, he had stopped teaching. 

Alessandro Volta was made the director of the philosophical faculty at the University of Padua in 1815 by Francis I, the Austrian emperor during that time. Here, Volta published his works in five volumes, retiring to his family estate in Camnago soon after (in 1819).

The volt, a unit of measurement of electric potential or electromotive force, was named after Alessandro Volta in 1881, in honour of his contribution to the field, both directly and indirectly.

However, unrelated to the field, the Volta Crater on the moon is also named after Alessandro Volta.



Image Credits: ThoughtCo

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