First on First: Alessandro Volta and the Battery

#First on First – Each month we will bring you the story of Italians and Italian Americans who accomplished firsts!
This month, we’re taking a look at Alessandro Volta, the man who changed the face of modern technology.


volta1Alessandro Volta was born on February 18, 1745 in Como, Lombardy, Italy to a noble family. According to lore, he refused to speak until he was 4, which worried his family greatly. Fortunately, there was nothing to worry about: Alessandro was a fast learner and began his studies at a Jesuit boarding school where he found himself interested in physics and especially electricity.

After finishing his formal studies, Alessandro conducted experiments on electricity in various laboratories. In 1774 he became an instructor at a school in Como, and four years later he was named Professor of Physics at the University of Pavia. During his time at Como, Alessandro isolated methane gas – the first to do so – after noticing the bubbling in swamps. He also discovered that methane mixed with air could have a type of explosion when an electric spark was added to the mix. This discovery would become the basis and inspiration for the internal combustion engine.

batt1His discovery and invention of the first battery was brought on by an argument with his friend and fellow scientist Luigi Galvani. Luigi had been dissecting a frog when its legs began to twitch, which he thought was due to an electrical event in the area (such as lightening). Alessandro disagreed with his friend and went on to prove him wrong. He realized that the metal instruments used during the dissection were the source of the twitch – that a current between the instruments was causing the motion. Alessandro altered his experiments to create the first battery. By placing copper wire at the end of a container that was filled with alternating types of metal, Alessandro was able to produce the first continuous flow of an electric current. This battery was aptly named the Voltaic Pile.

The Royal Society of London elected Alessandro to become a Fellow in their organization in 1794, and three years later they awarded him their top prize: the Copley Medal. In 1819, he retired to Como with his family. He died in 1827.

His impact on science lives on: the ‘volt’ – a unit of electric potential – was named after Alessandro, and his discoveries have led to the creation of technology we use daily.

Sources: FamousScientists.orgEnergy QuestAmerican Physical Society 

Do you have an idea for #FirstonFirst? Drop us a line! We’d love to hear from you!

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