Alessandro Volta (1745-1827)
He was an Italian physicist, best known for the invention of the first electric generator ever made, the battery, and for the discovery of methane.
Born in Como in the ancient palace located in the current Volta Street, in 1758 he began his studies in the humanities, rhetoric and philosophy at the local Jesuit school. Later he joined the Benzi Royal Seminary in Como, where he completed his studies and became friends with the canon Giulio Cesare Gattoni who encouraged the young Volta’s scientific vocation, making his own natural sciences cabinet, housed in one of the towers (Gattoni Tower ) of the Como city walls.
Alessandro Volta was perhaps the first natural philosopher who can be considered a scientist in the modern sense of the term. With him we inaugurate the figure of the specialist, that is the man of science who, freed from metaphysical prejudices, faces the study of natural phenomena by framing them in a perspective in which counting and being decisive are essentially two things: a good theory explanatory and a valid and incontrovertible experimental verification. Both in success and in failure, Volta has embodied and inaugurated this important and new figure of scientist.
In the course of his life Alessandro Volta has had the opportunity to maintain direct and epistolary relations with many other scientists in various parts of Europe to find new instruments and meet European scientists. He repeats and perfects their experiments, making contributions of great originality. Among the typically voltian instruments stand out the perpetual electrophorus, which constitutes the first electrostatic induction machine, the condenser electrometer, whose great sensitivity will allow Volta to detect the weak phenomena of electrification by contact of different metals, and the electrometric scale, which led the scientist to accurate measurements of electrical force.
In 1792 Volta began extensive investigations into animal electricity, to which the most modern theory was that proposed by Luigi Galvani and which Volta himself defined as galvanism. It was precisely the disagreement with Galvani himself that led Volta to develop, in the 1800s, the so-called “voltaic pile”, a predecessor of the electric battery, which produced a constant electric current.
The phenomenon underlying the operation of the voltaic pile, whereby a small potential difference is established between two different metal conductors placed in contact, takes the name Volta effect. From his long experiments Volta obtained three laws to describe the phenomenon.
The announcement of the invention of the pile, which took place in 1801 at the Royal Society, further increased the consensus of the international scientific community for Volta. In 1801 the device was presented at the Institut de France in Paris, in the presence of Napoleon who proposed to assign Volta a gold medal.
The fame of Volta is rightly linked to the invention of the battery, but we must not forget his studies on gases, also because during these he arrives at the discovery of methane, of the law of isobaric air expansion and of important results on the voltage of vapor.
While she was a guest in Angera in the home of her friend Teresa Castiglioni, Volta discovered methane in the marsh of the Isolino Partegora. Trying to move the bottom with the help of a stick, he saw that they were rising bubbles of gas and collected them in bottles. He gave this gas the name “flammable marsh air” and discovered that it could be burned either by a lit candle or by an electric discharge: he deduced that the gas was formed in the decomposition of animal and vegetable substances.
In 1820 Alessandro Volta retired to private life, dying in March 1827 at the peak of an extraordinary life in the service of science.