Friday, July 5, 2013

Alessandra Volta and the invention of the battery

I have spent the past two weeks in Como, Italy for a wonderful conference called Quantitative Laws of Genome Evolution.  I will write more about it later, but let me at least thank Marco Lagomarsino for organizing such a wonderful conference.
The location was ok, too.  Como is a beautiful place; I was in the region 15 years ago and was eager to return in the name of science.  However, during my first visit to Lombardy, I wasn't aware of the rich scientific history in the region.  Como was the home of Alessandro Volta, who discovered the first battery by creating a continuous current between two metals and stacking these in a voltaic pile.

Today I visited the Tempio Voltiano to try to glean some details of Volta's life from the Italian descriptions and to look at his instruments and early batteries. I was attracted to the exhibit after learning that Volta discovered the battery in 1800.  I found out that Volta was an interdisciplinary scientist, tinkering and building eudiometers, investigating "inflammable gases" (e.g., methane), studying atmospheric conditions, building capacitors, etc., all from materials such as wax, clay, wood, stone, metal, paper, and glass.  It seems miraculous to me to design something as complex as a battery from these supplies without any post hoc knowledge.
Tempio Voltiano

There were also displays about the study of "animal electricity," the view supported by Volta's rival Luigi Galvani, including many mummified frog legs and one manta ray preserved in formaldehyde.  What an interesting time to be studying the movement of electrons!  Did energy come from the dead animal itself?  Or was the animal just a vehicle?  Volta was inspired to build his voltaic piles to prove his rival wrong, ultimately inventing an incredibly useful technology.  He received recognition in his time, as well, demonstrating his early batteries to Napoleon in Paris.

And now I leave you with a few pictures from the museum. Enjoy!

Earliest voltaic piles

Volta demonstrated the voltaic piles on the right to Napoleon.

The first chemical battery.

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