Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (1745 - 1827) was an Italian physicist and chemist credited with the invention of the electric battery. He is also named the discoverer of methane, as well as having discovered the ‘volt’, the unit of electromagnetic force which is named after him.
Even two centuries after his death, Volta’s overriding legacy is his significant contribution to the growing field of electricity around the turn of the 19th century.
Volta was born in Como, Lombardy, to a wealthy and religious family. It was their hope he would grow up to study law, whilst his teachers wished for him to enter the priesthood. However, he was drawn towards physics; in particular, electricity.
In the mid-1700s, scientists were desperately waiting for an electricity breakthrough. Leyden jars had just been invented and Benjamin Franklin was flying a kite during a thunderstorm to discover the connection between electricity and lightning. Doctors were also administering electrical therapy to soldiers to try and cure paralysis. Electricity had captured the world’s attention and this hadn’t gone unnoticed by the young Volta.
He left school early and did not enter higher education, choosing instead to seek out scientists conducting research into electricity. Despite no formal education, he became a Professor of Physics in Como and started experimenting with electricity at home. His first great contribution was his major tweaks to the perpetual electrophorus, an implement that produces static electricity. He then produced his own device, the ‘Voltaic pile’, said to be a precursor to many technologies including the internal combustion engine.
Word quickly spread about the young Professor and subsequently, he was appointed Professor of Physics at the University of Pavia, a role he would hold for 40 years.
His fifty-fifth year saw the most important turning point in his career. One morning, the Royal Society of London received a letter announcing the invention of the ‘electric pile’, now known as the ‘voltaic pile’. Nobody had previously been able to sustain a spark of electricity over any length of time, but Volta ascertained he could now make this possible. With the pile, not only did Volta produce the world’s first-ever battery, but he also debunked a popular theory at the time which demonstrated that frogs’ legs were sources of electricity.
The invention was such a hit that Volta was personally invited by Napolean Bonaparte to the Tuileries to demonstrate how the device worked. With Volta’s own ongoing research and that of fellow scientists, buoyed by his revolutionary invention, the development of electricity accelerated.
A decade after his invention, Zolta was made a Count by Napoleon. In his lifetime, he also achieved the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, Napoleon’s Order of the Iron Crown and the illustrious Légion d'honneur).
Once his reputation had soared, twinned with increasing old age, Volta began to withdraw from both work and public life. At the age of 74, he retired to his Como estate for the remaining eight years of his life.