A Short Biography of Alessandro Volta

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 grew up to become Professor of Physics at the Royal School of Como where he experimented with the Electrophorus, an instrument that produces static electricity and that he improved a lot. Contrary to popular belief, Volta did not invent this device.

He discovered methane instead

He went on to study the chemistry of gases and is credited with the discovery of methane. How he came to it is not precisely known (the large bowl of chili con carne that he had the evening before may have had something to do with it). Inspired by the flammable nature of methane, Volta started experimenting with the gas in hermetically sealed containers that he tried 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 started 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
invented the electrical battery (instead of placing a horse's head on Luigi’s pillow).

Volts are named volts because of capacitance

Volta also studied 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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