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Bright Sparks: Alessandro Volta

The modern world would look very different without the contributions of those who helped us harness electricity and develop electrical equipment. Here, we focus on some of the pioneers of the electrical world and their remarkable achievements.

NAME: Alessandro Volta
 (Conte Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta)

DATES: 18 February 1745 (Como, Italy) – 5 March 1827 (Como, Italy)

EARLY LIFE: One of nine children (with four brothers and four sisters), Volta was the son of an
Italian noble. He excelled at the Jesuit-run schools he attended, mastering foreign languages and showing great interest in chemistry.

At the Benzi Royal Seminary, he met cleric Giulio Cesare who became his patron. Then, aged 18, he began exchanging letters with French physicist Abbé Jean- Antoine Nollet, in which he put forward the idea that electrical attraction followed Newton’s laws of gravity.

FIRST INVENTION: Improvements to the electrophorus, a generator of static electricity.

 

MAJOR ACHIEVEMENTS: A physicist, chemist and pioneer of electrical science, Volta is best known for inventing the electric battery – the first source of continual current.

1700s

1775 improved the electrophorus.
1776-7 discovered and isolated methane gas; found that methane mixed with air could be exploded using an electric spark – the basis of the internal combustion engine. Also studied what’s now known as capacitance.
1777 pioneered the development of the eudiometer through his “Volta Pistol”, used for testing air and the flammability of gases and for demonstrating the chemical effects of electricity.
1779 appointed Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Pavia.

Early 1800s

1800 invented the “voltaic pile” – effectively the first electric battery –which proved that electricity could be generated chemically – and reported this invention in a letter to the Royal Society.
1801 demonstrated the voltaic pile to Napoleon at the Institute of France 
in Paris.
1815 became Director of the Philosophical Faculty at the University of Padua.

3 THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW:

1.    Napoleon made Volta a count in 1810.
2.    Volta preferred to live a quiet life and keep out of the public eye, especially in his later years.
3.    Volta is buried at his old estate in Camnago, where a museum and a memorial, the Tempio Voltiano, have been built in his memory.

Legacy:

In 1881, more than 50 years after Volta’s death, the volt was named in his honour, following his work on Volta’s Law of Capacitance, which found that the electric potential in a capacitor is directly proportional to its electric charge.

The Voltian Foundation, which promotes scientific activities, is based at the Villa Olmo, close to the Tempio Voltiano.

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