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Alessandro Volta
The Invention of the Voltaic Pile
(The First Electric Battery)
Hands On Activity: Build Your Own Voltaic Pile Battery

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  • Alessandro Volta and Luigi Galvani

    Alessandro Volta
    Alessandro Volta 1745-1827
    There is evidence that primitive batteries were used in Iraq and Egypt as early as 200 B.C. for electroplating and precious metal gilding. In 1748, Benjamin Franklin coined the term "battery" to describe an array of charged glass plates.

    Around the 1790s, through numerous observations and experiments, Luigi Galvani, an Italian professor of anatomy, caused muscular contraction in a frog by touching its nerves with an electrostatically charged metal. Later, he was able to cause muscular contraction by touching the nerve with different metals without a source of electrostatic charge. He concluded that animal tissue contained an innate vital force, which he termed "animal electricity."

    In fact, it was Volta's famous disagreement with Galvani's theory of animal electricity that led Volta, in 1800, to build the voltaic pile to prove that electricity did not come from the animal tissue but was generated by the contact of different metals in a moist environment.

    Most historians attribute the invention of the battery to Alessandro Volta since his voltaic pile was the first battery that produced a reliable, steady current of electricity.

    Volta’s invention was to give rise to electrochemistry, electromagnetism and the modern applications of electricity. Also Galvani's idea of animal electricity did not prove useless. Galvani’s research was soon to develop into electrophysiology and modern biology.

    After Volta is called the "volt", the unit of electromotive force; after Galvani is called the galvanometer - an instrument for detecting and measuring small electric currents.

    The Voltaic Pail Experiment

    Alessandro Volta’s Original “Pile”
    Alessandro Volta’s Original "Pile", exhibited in the Volta Temple, Como, Italy.
    Basically, Volta’s pile was a messy stack (pile) of discs made of two types of metal - one silver, the other zinc. The discs were separated from each other by a piece of cloth or cardboard that had been soaked in salt water (brine). Volta found that this wet stack of “dissimilar metals” created a small electric current, and this current could be drawn off through wires and used for experiments. However, a pile could generate only a small voltage of 1-2 volts. Several piles - a “battery” of them - could be assembled side by side and connected to each other with metal strips to create a high power energy source.

    Build Your Own Voltaic Pile

    In some of his variant pile experiments Volta used a solution of sulfuric acid as the electrolyte in order to achieve better results. In high concentrations, this acid can be very dangerous. If it gets on the skin or in the eyes, it can cause very serious burns and can permanently blind. To repeat Volta's experiment use more benign substances like copper sulfate, for example or brine.

    As a rule: this experiment should be performed under the supervision of teachers or adults familiar with safety procedures.

    Read carefully the experiment links and ensure that you understand the basic principals. Brows further the web and consult your local library, your teachers and other knowledgeable adults and experts.

    Web Links

    Build Your Own Voltaic Pile
    The Volta's Pile - Giorgio Carboni
    Battery Chemistry: Voltaic Pile - howstuffworks
    Batteries - David A. Katz
    Variables in a Voltaic Pile - MadSci Network
    The Voltaic Pile - Cartage
    How to Make a Voltaic Pile -
    Building a Voltaic Pile - Youtube

    Voltaic Pail Controversies
    Origin of Power in the Voltaic Pile -
    Nineteenth-Century Theories of the Voltaic Pile - Helge Kragh

    Alessandro Volta Biographies
    Count Alessandro Volta - Energy Quest
    Alessandro Volta - Corrosion Doctors
    Alessandro Volta -
    Alessandro Volta - Wikipedia
    Allesandro Volta - l' uomo e lo scienziato
    Alessandro Volta - The Catholic Encyclopedia
    Alessandro Volta - The Great Idea Finder
    Alessandro Volta - Nancy D. Lewis

    Electrochemistry and Battery History
    Electrochemistry: Early History
    Battery History -
    Electricity Timeline - Nancy D. Lewis
    Electric Battery - The Great Idea Finder
    Spark Museum
    Instruments for Natural Philosophy - Thomas B. Greenslade
    Voltaic pile Clipart - Educational Technology Clearinghouse

    Science Fair Projects
    Battery & Cell Science Fair Projects and Experiments


    Volta : Science and Culture in the Age of Enlightenment

    Provides fascinating details, many previously unknown, the author depicts Volta as an inventor who used his international network of acquaintances to further his quest to harness the power of electricity.

    The Ambiguous Frog: The Galvani-Volta Controversy on Animal Electricity

    This lively debate erupted when two scientists, Volta and Galvani, each examining the muscle contractions of a dissected frog in contact with metal, came up with opposing but experimentally valid explanations of the phenomenon.

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    Last updated: June 2013
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