Alessandro Volta was an Italian scientist and inventor who created one of the first electric batteries known as a voltaic pile. The voltaic pile produced a current and was made by stacking different metals separated by paper that had been soaked in a salt solution. He also isolated methane gas and demonstrated that it could be ignited by a spark.
Volta was born in Como, Italy close to the Swiss border. He became professor of physics at the Royal School in Como in 1774. There he was very interested in studying static electricity, building on the work of other scientists.
In 1791, Volta’s colleague Luigi Galvani noticed that frog legs moved when they were touched with two different types of metal. While Galvani believed there was something in the muscles of the frog that was causing this, Volta had another idea and thought it was the liquid in the frog's legs that was having a effect. Volta created a pile of plates of different metal types with rags soaked in brine. This was known as the voltaic pile, forming a first electrochemical cell or battery.
The voltaic pile demonstrated that not all electricity came from living things, a commonly believed theory at the time. This voltaic pile was superior to the Leyden jar that other scientists were using as it did not require recharging. This paved the way for the all the modern batteries we use in the world today. The voltaic pile was shared with Anthony Carlisle and William Nicholson who used it to perform the first electrolysis of water. When Volta demonstrated his battery to Napoleon, he made him a count and a senator of the kingdom of Lombardy.
Not only did Volta make important discoveries in electricity, but also in chemistry. In November 1776, Volta collected a sample of gas from a marsh on the Italian-Swiss border. Volta had collected a sample of pure methane and he demonstrated that the gas could be ignited using a spark. Methane is the main constituent of natural gas and is used as a fuel to heat our homes and offices.
The unit of potential difference, the volt, is named after him to honor his work in the field of electricity. Volta died in 1827 in Como, Italy, aged 82.
“You must be ready to give up even the most attractive ideas when experiment shows them to be wrong.”
“The language of experiment is more authoritative than any reasoning: facts can destroy our ratiocination—not vice versa.”
“What is it possible to do well, in physics particularly, if things are not reduced to degrees and measures?”