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Volta, Alessandro (Giuseppe Anastasio), Count

electric electricity potential current

(1745–1827) Italian physicist: the inventor of the electric battery.

Born in Como of an aristocratic family devoted to the Church, Volta was professor of natural philosophy at Pavia (1778–1818) and, after some political turbulence, became rector of Pavia. Highly religious, but not prudish, a friend records that he ‘understood a lot about the electricity of women’.

Following discovery in the 1780s that an electric spark, or contact with copper and iron, caused a disembodied frog’s leg to twitch, Volta (who had long studied electricity) was interested in finding the cause of the phenomenon. Experiment showed him that an electric current could be generated by bringing different metals into contact with one another. In 1799 he succeeded in constructing a battery consisting of metal discs, alternately silver and zinc, with brine-soaked card between them. This voltaic pile produced a steady electric current and was the first reliable source of electricity. Volta did little further work on the device, but it was to transform the study of the subject and was invaluable to men such as . It also laid to rest the contemporary theory that animal tissue was somehow necessary for the generation of electricity. Volta was given the title of Count by Napoleon, who invaded Italy in the 1790s and who had become very interested in electricity and correctly foresaw its importance to science. The SI unit of electric potential, the volt (V), is named after him. If the work done in causing one coulomb of electric charge to flow between two points is one joule, then the potential difference between the points is one volt.

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