This month’s Classic Kit is the story of Alessandro Volta, the supposed half-wit from Como who made good. It’s a rather puerile title, of course. But even the editor could not resist. Italians and French speakers know that a battery is called a pila and a pile, respectively, even though the original stack is long gone.
What is remarkable is the degree to which Volta experimented on himself as he tried to get the measure of this astonishing phenomenon. His letter to Joseph Banks, that Banks published in Phil. Trans., is remarkable. Annoyingly the reference didn’t fit on the page and had to be cut - Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 1800 90, 403-431 .
The report generated one hell of a stir across the Europe and the electrical theory of chemistry came forward almost immediately. Indeed, piles seem to have become required apparatus for professors starting out. Alwyn Davies, Emeritus Prof here at UCL, pointed out that when Edward Turner arrived here in 1828 he asked the college for £500 to fit out the laboratory.
“A considerable part of this amount will be devoted to the galvanic apparatus which must necessarily be a powerful one. I expect that £100 will supply a battery of sufficient force but in order to do this very great care and economy are necessary”.
It’s a shame about the tightness of the piece that we had to cut out two things that are quite neat. First of all, in thinking about spin-off, most people will immediately think about batteries and the devices that rely on them. But the mystery of why two metals in contact should generate a voltage would lead Wolfgang Gaede to build vacuum pumps. To him we owe the diffusion pump, the molecular drag pump, the rotary pump and the ballast valve. You can read about Gaede in a previous Classic Kit article.
But we also had to cut references to the brilliant and mercurial biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani who was Volta’s colleague at the University of Pavia. Spallanzani is a figure in our understanding of reproduction – he proved that sperm must be transferred from the male frog to the female and did so by sewing little underpants to fit onto the amphibians. He was also the victim of a plot by a jealous colleague to smear his reputation. Spallanzani’s revenge was as ferocious as it was effective. If you read italian check out Paolo Mazzarello’s wonderful “Costantinopoli 1786: la congiura e la beffa. L’intrigo Spallanzani“, Bollati Boringhieri, 2004.
Anyway, if you want to read about Volta, the result is over at Chemistry World.