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Alessandro Volta - the count who didn't believe the frog.

2021-02-18

Alessandro_Volta

It doesn't matter where you start, it matters where you finish. This, in a nutshell, is the biography of Alessandro Volta, who was born on February 18, 1745 in Italy. The beginnings were not easy. The relatives of the inventor, whose name is commemorated in the SI unit, the volt, doubted his chances of success. They believed that he was retarded, as he did not speak until the age of five. This changed when he entered the Jesuit college, where it became apparent that not only was he not inferior to his peers intellectually, but far superior to them. His family wanted him to study law, but he made it clear that he wanted to study physics and electricity, which interested him from an early age.

The correspondence he conducted with scientists around the world was of great importance for his career development and future achievements. It is worth mentioning in particular two of them – the first was Giovanni Beccaria, who did not believe in Alessandro's ideas. However, he didn't express his doubts directly and instead urged the younger physicist to conduct experiments in order to prove his mistakes. Volta accepted the challenge of a more experienced scientist and initiated numerous experiments that led to some of his most important discoveries thereafter. We can only guess how Volta's fate would have turned out if Beccaria had opted for less subtle criticism.

Another scientist, with whom Volta maintained an extensive correspondence, was Luigi Galvani. At that time, he was working on the phenomenon of the so-called animal electricity. He was convinced that animal muscles contained electricity that activated the frog's muscles. Volta had doubts about this theory and suggested that the electricity came from the contact of the two metals and that the frog was acting as the conductor. The dispute around this topic resulted in the development of the first galvanic cell (a term coined by Volta in honour of Galvani). Volta proved his point by constructing a cell made of disks of zinc and copper and brine-soaked paper (as electrolyte). However, he did not stop there and in the further course of his work he combined several such links, and then presented his invention, known as the voltaic pile, to Napoleon Bonaparte, who, appreciating the importance of the discovery, bestowed upon the inventor the title of count and awarded him the highest national decoration - the French Legion of Honour. The achievement significantly influenced the development of science, because the voltaic pile was a much more convenient source of electricity than the Leiden bottles used at that time. Interestingly, the awards and titles from Napoleon turned out to be troublesome for the scientist and forced him to flee and hide for some time, when the emperor lost the war and was exiled to Elba. Fortunately, the knowledge and talent turned out to be more important than political ties, so soon Volta was able to return to the world of science and became chairman of the Department of Physics and Mathematics in Pavia.

The greatest invention of Volta is the voltaic pile, but that's not the only invention he made. In 1775, he perfected the electrophore, which was invented by Johan Wilcke; then, he developed the condenser and the electroscope, used to detect the presence of electric charge on a body. The Italian inventor, who, in addition to physics, was also interested in chemistry, discovered methane and studied its properties, which in the future were to influence the development of combustion engine technology. Looking for practical applications of methane, Volta constructed, among others, the “electro-phlogopneumatic pistol,” in which a mixture of air and flammable gas was ignited by an electric spark. The electrostatic charge was produced using an electrophorus.

The ability to generate electricity from chemical reactions enabled the development of studies on electricity. The work of the Italian paved the way for experiments with electromagnetism, which resulted in the invention of electric motors. The voltaic pile enabled the development of studies of such physical phenomena as electric current and resistance, followed by the development of measuring instruments and further theoretical work.

The method of generating electricity from chemical reactions not only contributed to the development of science. For many years it was one of the most popular methods of generating electricity. Primary cells, which we use in everyday devices, have similar properties to the device developed by an Italian inventor. Over the years their construction and production technology have been improved, introducing zinc-carbon, lithium and alkaline batteries. Electrolytic cells, which are commonly referred to as batteries, are a related solution. Inside them, the chemical reaction does not occur spontaneously, but is triggered by supplying the electrodes with an appropriate potential difference. When disconnected, the battery stores electrical energy which can be released by closing the circuit. Such phenomena occur, for example, inside lead-acid batteries commonly used in the automotive industry. It is also the working principle of lithium-ion, lithium-polymer, and nickel-metal batteries etc. These technologies are used in mobile phones, laptops, toys, and many other mobile devices plugged into chargers every day.

It should also be noted that the invention of the Italian did not consist of a single pair of electrodes - but of a series of them. The serial connection of cells is still used in the production of many energy sources. What was called the "pile" in Volta's time is today referred to as the "battery". The most popular, mass-produced cells have a nominal voltage of 1.5V or 3.7V DC. Meanwhile, a higher potential difference is usually required to power many devices. Therefore, battery holders, where batteries are inserted according to the proper polarity, are usually used. They are connected in series to achieve a higher voltage. The same is true, for example, in the case of cordless power tools. They are powered by several electrolytic cells.

Apart from numerous awards, Alessandro Volta was honoured in an exceptional manner. The volt, the electrical unit of voltage, is named after the famous Italian inventor. Today, basic electrical and electronic measurements are made using voltmeters, while detecting potential differences is the basis of oscilloscopes, logic analyzers and many other tools. There is no doubt that Alessandro Volta was not only a great scientist, but also a pioneer whose theoretical work lies at the very basis of modern technology.

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