Pavia University Physics professor and student of chemistry, Alessandro Volta was in disagreement with anatomist Luigi Galvani. The two men disagreed over Galvani’s theory of muscular responses. Galvani claimed muscle tissue contained a form of electricity, Volta did not. Volta believed that muscle response was triggered by the contact of different metals, in this case iron and brass, in a wet environment.
The original idea came about while Galvani was dissecting a frog, when one of the frog’s legs started to twitch. The anatomist thought it happened because there may have been lightning in the area. Afterwards, Volta attempted to duplicate Galvani’s experiment under different weather conditions. This time on a clear day with no lightning taking place nearby. After repeated tries, Volta noted that the clamps holding the frog leg in place were constructed of two different metals. During the next few years, Volta understood that the moist muscle was a conductor for a very low current that was the result of contact between the two different metals.
In 1799, Volta stacked one disk made of silver and another made of zinc. The disks were separated by a cloth soaked in salt water. The result was a low electric current. He began to use this type of current for other experiments. Volta soon discovered that several stacks or piles could be connected to each other with metalic strips to create an energy source of higher current.
The name of a grouping of similar items, or articles arranged or used together as a set or series is called a battery. Because Volta had linked several piles together in series, he called his discovery the battery. In subsequent experiments with his battery, Volta discovered that stronger acids, such as sulfuric acid, yielded higher current.
In 1800, Volta was confident enough with the results of his experiments and tests that he announced his discovery publicly. While demonstrating his voltaic pile to the French Academy of Science, he was appointed to the court of Lombardy by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who ruled that portion of Italy. In 1815, The Austrian emperor selected Volta to fill the post of director of the Philosophy Department at the University of Padua.
As you have probably guessed, the unit of electrical potential we use today, the volt, was named in honor of Count Volta. It’s easy to forget that Volta discovered other phenomenon besides electrical force. During his tenure at the Royal School in Como, Italy, in 1775, Volta improved upon and popularized a static electricity generator called the electrophorus.
During the next three years, professor Volta investigated the chemistry of various gases. An essay about flammable air by Benjamin Franklin inspired Volta to investigate further. Volta discovered methane and isolated it in 1778. He experimented with internal combustion by igniting the gas in a closed container with an electrical spark.
Volta was an early student of electrical capacitance. That is, he developed various techniques to observe electrical potential and electrical charge. He found that for any given object, potential and charge are proportional. This has come to be called “Volta’s Law of Capacitance”. While doing this research, Volta invented the electrical condensor which we now call the capacitor.