Alessandro Volta Discovered Methane - a Short Biography

September 19, 2019 | 11:02
Allessandro Volta
Allessandro Volta (source: Wikipedia)

A-G-AA Volta

Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (1745 – 1827) is most famous for his invention of the electrical battery in 1800 or so, the Voltaic pile, but this was not his main feat. It is also not the reason why the SI unit of electric potential is volts. Some people believe that the AA and AAA cells are named after him, but this is not true either.

Volta did not invent the Electrophorus

Born in Italy in 1745, Volta grows up to become Professor of Physics at the Royal School of Como where he experiments with the Electrophorus, an instrument that produces static electricity and that he improves a lot. Contrary to popular belief, Volta was not the inventer of this device.

He discovered methane instead

He goes on to study the chemistry of gases and is credited with the discovery of methane. How he came to it is not precisely known (maybe due to the large bowl of chili con carne the evening before?).

Volta worked on bombs 

Inspired by the flammable nature of methane, Volta starts experimenting with methane in hermetically sealed containers that he tries to ignite with sparks produced by electricity. Although not officially credited for it, Volta may have laid the foundations of modern bombs.

 
Electrophorus
The Electrophorus that Volta did not invent.

Volta invented the electrical battery

Inspired, but not convinced by Luigi “Frog Leg” Galvani, Volta starts experimenting with bits of
brine-soaked paper between electrodes made of different metals, which eventually led to Volta’s
Law of the Electrochemical Series. In an attempt to shut Luigi’s big mouth once and for all, Volta
invents the electrical battery (instead of placing a horse's head on Luigi’s pillow).

Volts are volts because of capacitance

Volta also studies electrical capacitance. It was his discovery of the proportional relationship for a
given object between electric potential and charge — known today as Volta’s Law of Capacitance
— that got him on the SI shortlist. Although Volta fully deserves his SI unit, it is a shame that the ‘a’ was dropped for some reason; it would have given a slight Mediterranean touch to electronics.

 
10,000 lire banknote with Volta's face on it
The Royal Society, at the basis of the SI system, has always denied that a violin case filled with 10,000-lira banknotes played a role in the honor giving. “Of course, we would never have accepted Italian banknotes, not even if they had his face printed on both sides.” a spokesman of the Royal Society said. “They were worthless at the time and they are even more so today.
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