A retrospective: Alessandro Volta

Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta, was born in Como, Lombardy, Italy in 1745, to Filippo and Donna Volta, who came from noble ancestry. His father died when he was young, and his uncle homeschooled him until he was twelve, when he began studies at a Jesuit boarding school. Despite his families wishes, the school attempted to pressurise Alessandro to study to become a priest, and they were forced to remove him, and he studied at the Benzi Seminary until he reached eighteen years of age. His family wished for him to go to law school, but he had no interest in becoming a lawyer, as his interests were in the world around him, and how things worked. He wished to become a scientist.

Volta’s area of interest became electricity and he became engaged with several leading physicists of the time, Jean-Antoine Nollet, and Giambatista Beccaria, where he exchanged his ideas with them. During this time his close friend, Giulio Cesare Gattoni had built a laboratory in his home and allowed Volta to study and carry out experiments for a number of years.

In 1774 he became a professor of physics at the Royal School of Como, (Reale Accademia d’Italia). In 1775 he formulated a “perpetual electrophorus” that could discharge power to other objects via renewable charge from applied friction. Despite his interest in physics, he was also concerned with chemistry and extensively studied gases, after successfully discovering and isolating methane gas. In 1779 after discovering his ‘Law of Capacitance‘, he became a professor of physics at University of Pavia (Università degli Studi di Pavia), a lifetime position that he maintained.

The ‘Law of Capacitance’ is ‘Q = C/V C/V = F’, Q+ and Q- is proportional to (V) Volt, The SI unit of capacitance is Coulomb/Volt = Farad (F).

Volta was on the verge of creating his most important scientific discovery which was in the form of the ‘Voltaicpile‘, which was the first electric battery. Essentially each cell consisted of three parts – Zinc, copper and moistened leather with water and vinegar, or brine (the electrolyte), and the power comes from an electrochemical reaction. The zinc atom loses electrons and it turns into an ion, from the acid in the electrolyte attempting to dissolve them, and the copper captures them. This makes the zinc a negative electrode and the copper a positive electrode, making a battery. The resulting power was named a ‘Volt‘ after Alessandro Volta.

In 1810 Napoleon Bonaparte recognised his scientific achievements and made him Count Alessandro Volta, and he was made a Senator of the kingdom of Lombardy, where he retired. He died in 1827 in the town of his birth at aged 82.