Have you jumped behind the wheel of an electric car today, relied on a lead-acid battery to start your internal-combustion engine vehicle, or perhaps just used your mobile telephone to call someone? If you have, the chances are you should be thanking an Italian by the name of Alessandro Volta: the father of the modern battery.
Today, were he alive, Volta would be celebrating his 270th birthday.
Ignoring the batteries of antiquity like the so-called Baghdad Batteries or galvanic cells of Mesopotamia during the Iranian dynasties of Parthian and Sassanid, Volta can be considered to be the inventor of the modern electrochemical battery. A keen scientist, Volta was born into noble lineage in the town of Como — a place which today is located in modern-day Northern Italy near to the border with Switzerland. He then married an aristocrat lady from the same town, with whom he raised three sons.
By 1774, he was a professor of physics at the Royal School in Como, where he continued his experiments into the world of both chemistry and electricity.
In addition to being credited with the discovery of methane in 1776 after reading a paper by American scientist and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin on so-called ‘flammable air,’ Volta devised a way to both isolate the methane and ignite it by using an electrical spark contained within a closed vessel.
But perhaps it is his discovery of electrical capacitance, which lead him to devise a way to measure electrical potential and capacitance, as well as the voltaic pile — or battery — for which he is most famous.
As you might guess, the name given for his measurement of electrical potential — the Volt — comes directly from his own name, while his discovery that for a given object the electrical potential and capacitance are directly proportional is known as Volta’s Law of Capacitance.
It wasn’t until 1800 though that Volta’s biggest discovery occurred as the result of a professional disagreement with fellow scientist Luigi Galvani. Galvani, famous for his experiment in which electrodes sparking against the legs of a dead frog caused the legs to twitch, believed that the electricity he saw sparking was produced inside the frog’s pelvic muscles.
Volta instead postulated that the electricity was caused by the circuit created between the legs and the metal cables Galvani used, leading him to invent the very first Voltaic Pile.
The Voltaic Pile — one electrode of zinc, the other of copper, separated by brine-soaked cardboard — provided a steady flow of direct current and became the first electrochemical battery. Volta, who credited some of his invention to the work of William Nicholson, Tiberius Cavallo and Abraham Bennet, went on to refine his rudimentary battery cell, putting them together in series to produce an ever-more powerful yet steady electrical current.
The electrochemical battery was born. And while the materials used in modern batteries are different to the ones Volta first used, the basic principals remain the same.
So if you’re using a battery today — be it in an electric car, a laptop computer or perhaps just a wrist watch — don’t forget to wish the father of the modern battery a very happy 270th birthday.
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