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Alessandro Volta, His Life and Contributions Essay (Biography)

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Early life

Alesandro Giusepe Antonio Anastasio Volta was born in Como, Lombardy in Italy on 18 February 1745 of noble origin, as the son of Filippo and Maddalena inzaghi, a woman of noble background. Though Volta’s mother was of noble origin, the family was not wealthy (Pancaldi, 2005, p 12); however, unlike his other siblings, young Alesandro did not go to church. During the time, the church was a major social, cultural, and economic factor in the life of the people who lived in Como (Pancaldi, 2005 p 12).

During his childhood, the young Volta did not show any signs of being a genius; in fact, members of his family thought that he was retarded early in his life since he took long before he could talk. He only managed to talk when he was four years old. However, tragedy struck him early in his life as his father died when he was only seven years old. Interestingly, at the same age, he had caught up with other children and could do what they were capable of doing. He then gradually increased his intellectual ability at a rate faster than that of other children.

Volta had a normal childhood life and was educated in the public schools in Como, having started school at the age of five at the school of Rhetoric in Como Volta: (Great Idea Finder, 2007). Volta’s uncles who controlled his education decided that he should study law; however, Volta’s fascination with natural sciences made them change their mind and allowed him to study physics and chemistry. This interest had initially been instilled by his friend known as Giulio Cesare Gattoni (Poole, 2010).

Alessandro Volta’s parent played a very weak emotional role in his life. In fact, it is said that when his mother died, Volta had just come from his European tour of 1781-1782 and when he arrived in Milan, he heard that his mother was sick but instead of going to see her, he stayed in Milan to pursue personal interests and relied upon the information he received regularly from home (Pancaldi, 2005 p13).

Volta’s works

Among the earliest documented works of Volta was the dissertation on electricity, which he presented in 1769. Volt proposed that most electronic effects could be explained by only one force, the force of attraction. He proposed that expulsion could be explained as attraction of an object away from the other object. However, this theory failed to get popularity and even Volta himself abandoned it. However, the attention that Volta gained from the dissertation enabled him to be appointed as professor in a school in Como (Schiffer, 2006, p 56).

Volta’s inventions began soon after he became a professor at the Royal school in Como. Among the first instruments that he devised was the electrophorus. Volta showed how it could be used to produce static electricity. Volt covered one of the two metal plates of the instrument with ebonite, which after being rubbed with a dry cloth accumulates a negative static electric charge. The other plate had an insulated handle to prevent if from discharging. Since opposite charges attract, negative charges are attracted to the ebonite plate’s positive charges.

The negative charges also repel the negative charges of the ebonite plate. These negative charges are then removed from the plate by connecting the plate with a wire which is attached to the earth in a process known as earthing. Repeating the process builds up and stores charges on the plate with the insulated handle. Volta’s invention replaced the Leyden jar, which was used to store charge; however, this invention would later lead to the invention of capacitors, which are used to store electricity in modern electric circuits (How products are made, 2010). Volta continued his study of chemistry between 1776 and 1777.

During this time, Volta devised many chemical experiments. Volta showed how a spark of electricity can be used light a gas which is inside an enclosed container. During this time, Volta also made his first discovery; he also discovered the gas methane after isolating it from natural gas. During this time, Volta traveled to Switzerland where he formed a close friendship with H.B Saussure a famous Swiss naturalist. In 1779, Volt was appointed a professor at the University of Pavia, a position he held for the next 25 year. In addition, Volt was a much-traveled person and knew very many scientific celebrities of his time. In 1782, he traveled through France, Germany, England, and the Netherlands, thus the acquaintance with the scientific celebrities broadened his knowledge on many scientific ideas (Anon, 2010).

In 1781, Luigi Galvani, an Italian anatomist showed that animal muscles contained electricity. He showed that, when two different probes of two different metals touched the muscles of a frog the electricity in the muscles of the frog was released making the leg of the frog to twitch; this was known as the Galvani’s theory. However, Volt and other scientists disagreed with this theory and believed that the electricity in the muscle of the frog was not involved in the twitching of the leg. This was despite the fact that the theory was widely accepted by many people as true.

This prompted Volta to begin his own experiments to determine the source of the electricity. However, unknown to him, this would turn out to be his most significant achievement. After doing many experiments, Volta showed that all materials, which conducted electricity, either solids or liquids, could be classified into two groups; the first class conductors and the second-class conductors, with the first class conductors including metals and graphite, whereas the second class conductors including water and various aqueous solutions (electrolytes).

Volta proved that a potential difference was created by two first class conductors being merely in contact. One of the conductors becomes positively charged whereas the other becomes negatively charged. He also proved that placing a series of conductors in contact next to each other the potential difference between the first conductor and the last is same as if they were adjacent to each other. This series did not amplify the charge created by the conductors.

However, when the disks of metallic disks were alternated with wet cloth or second-class conductor the potential difference of one pair of the conductors adds up to the next one thereby leading to the amplification of the potential difference produced (Anon, 2010). He discovered that the muscle had no effect on the generation of current; the fluid in the muscle only increased the current generated by the two different metal rods.

However, his discovery proved controversial and many people were reluctant to agree with it. Nevertheless, Volta would soon prove them wrong as he made a device, which produced a constant flow of electric current using the idea, which he had been proposing as factual. He filled bowls with a saline solution and connected each bowl with the next one via different metal strips, and used either zinc or tin on one end and copper on the other end.

Volta generated a continuous electric flow by ensuring that the bowls were connected using a bent strip of metal. This way, volt had not only proven that the metal rod and not the animal tissue was the source of electricity but he had also made the world’s first electric battery. Volta made the electric battery using copper, zinc and cardboard disks.

He ensured that the cardboard used was wet by soaking it in a saline solution while the round metal discs were placed next to each other and the cardboard was placed between the two pairs of discs. In addition, a wire was used to join each metal disc pair to the next pair. This arrangement ensured that the battery that he made was small in size (How Products are made, 2010). Volta also made another representation of his experiment to form what is known as the couronne des tasses (crown of cups). In the representation, he used a series of cups, filled with water, or diluted acid, while strips of copper and zinc were used to connect the cups (Anon, 2010).

The experiment made Volta to propose the creation of an electromotive series. When each of the metals was placed in contact with a metal just below it in the series, it became positively charged. The electromotive series help in giving a more detailed explanation of the chemical theory. Gratefully, other scientists proved that the discoveries of Alessandro volt were correct. Among the scientists to prove the discoveries and make further advancements on the chemical theory was Michael Faraday an English physists (Anon, 2010).

This experiment marked the peak of Volta’s career as a scientist. Volta continued on his research activities and was elevated to different positions of political and academic leadership. In 1819, he retired from being actively involved in science and settled in his country house of Camnago in Como where he died in1827.

Volta’s recognition

During his lifetime, Volta had made friends with many different scientists of his age. Even though he disapproved the theory proposed by Luigi Galvani, he did not create enormity between him and Galvani (Corrosion doctors, n.d).

Volta was recognized in so many ways during his lifetime; he received recognition from many intellectual colleges in London, Berlin and Paris. In 1794, he was awarded the Copley medal of the Royal Society, the highest award given by the Royal Society of London that a person can get for outstanding scientific works

Alessandro Volta was cherished by the political leaders of his time. This is evidenced in the numerous awards he received from different political leaders from different regions. Volta received a medal in 1801 when napoleon Bonaparte invited him into his palace so that he may explain his inventions. Napoleon being a man who greatly admired scientific inventions and original works of his citizens, he not only bestowed upon Volta a medal but also put in a position of leadership by making him the senator of Lombardy. Moreover, in 1815, the emperor of Austria appointed him as the director of the philosophical faculty at the University of Padua.

Private life

Alassandro Volta married at a very late age; he married Signorina Teresa Peregrini, a woman who was far much younger than he was in 1794 at the age 50 – Signorina Teresa Peregrini was 19 years younger than Volta was. Ironically, Volta’s mother was also much younger than his father was, that was 22 years younger than his father was. Together, they had three sons who were born between 1795 and 1798; Volta invested in the education of his sons and whenever he could, he taught them himself basic notations of grammar and arithmetic (Pancaldi, 2005 p 39). However, one of his sons, the second, died at only 18 years; this greatly saddened Volta. However, both of Volta’s remaining sons went to Pavia University, the institution where Volta was a professor, and graduated in 1819 (Poole, 2010).

Post-humorous recognition

Alessandro Volta was been recognized in numerous ways by fellow scientists after his death. The most significant is the naming of an electric unit, ‘the volt’ in his name. This unit, which is used to measure the potential difference, was named after him in 1881. Volta is among the most popular and recognized citizens of Como, his hometown; indeed, a museum was erected in his honor. The museum, named the Voltian Temple, exhibits the original instruments, which Volta used in his experiment. Italians also honoured Volta by inserting his portrait in the 10,000 lira currency note. Although various scientists had tried to experiment on electricity, their findings were actually overshadowed by the works of Volta to an extent that majority of them appreciated what he did.


Anon. (2010). Web.

Corrosion Doctors. (N.d). . Web.

How Products are made. (2010). A. Web.

Pancaldi, G. (2003). Volta: Science and Culture in the Age of Enlightenment. NJ, Princeton University.

Poole, I. (2010). Web.

Schiffer, M. B. (2006). Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment. LA: university of California press.

The great Idea Finder. (2010). Alessandro Volta: Fascinating facts about Alessandro Volta inventor of the Electric Battery in 1800. Web.

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