A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter VII
The modern development of electricity and magnetism
Galvani and Volta
The full importance of Young's studies of light might perhaps have gained earlier recognition had it not chanced that, at the time when they were made, the attention of the philosophic world was turned with the fixity and fascination of a hypnotic stare upon another field, which for a time brooked no rival. How could the old, familiar phenomenon, light, interest any one when the new agent, galvanism, was in view? As well ask one to fix attention on a star while a meteorite blazes across the sky.

Galvanism was so called precisely as the Roentgen ray was christened at a later day - as a safe means of begging the question as to the nature of the phenomena involved. The initial fact in galvanism was the discovery of Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), a physician of Bologna, in 1791, that by bringing metals in contact with the nerves of a frog's leg violent muscular contractions are produced. As this simple little experiment led eventually to the discovery of galvanic electricity and the invention of the galvanic battery, it may be regarded as the beginning of modern electricity.

The story is told that Galvani was led to his discovery while preparing frogs' legs to make a broth for his invalid wife. As the story runs, he had removed the skins from several frogs' legs, when, happening to touch the exposed muscles with a scalpel which had lain in close proximity to an electrical machine, violent muscular action was produced. Impressed with this phenomenon, he began a series of experiments which finally resulted in his great discovery. But be this story authentic or not, it is certain that Galvani experimented for several years upon frogs' legs suspended upon wires and hooks, until he finally constructed his arc of two different metals, which, when arranged so that one was placed in contact with a nerve and the other with a muscle, produced violent contractions.

These two pieces of metal form the basic principle of the modern galvanic battery, and led directly to Alessandro Volta's invention of his "voltaic pile," the immediate ancestor of the modern galvanic battery. Volta's experiments were carried on at the same time as those of Galvani, and his invention of his pile followed close upon Galvani's discovery of the new form of electricity. From these facts the new form of electricity was sometimes called "galvanic" and sometimes "voltaic" electricity, but in recent years the term "galvanism" and "galvanic current" have almost entirely supplanted the use of the term voltaic.

It was Volta who made the report of Galvani's wonderful discovery to the Royal Society of London, read on January 31, 1793. In this letter he describes Galvani's experiments in detail and refers to them in glowing terms of praise. He calls it one of the "most beautiful and important discoveries," and regarded it as the germ or foundation upon which other discoveries were to be made. The prediction proved entirely correct, Volta himself being the chief discoverer.

Working along lines suggested by Galvani's discovery, Volta constructed an apparatus made up of a number of disks of two different kinds of metal, such as tin and silver, arranged alternately, a piece of some moist, porous substance, like paper or felt, being interposed between each pair of disks. With this "pile," as it was called, electricity was generated, and by linking together several such piles an electric battery could be formed.

This invention took the world by storm. Nothing like the enthusiasm it created in the philosophic world had been known since the invention of the Leyden jar, more than half a century before. Within a few weeks after Volta's announcement, batteries made according to his plan were being experimented with in every important laboratory in Europe.

As the century closed, half the philosophic world was speculating as to whether "galvanic influence" were a new imponderable, or only a form of electricity; and the other half was eagerly seeking to discover what new marvels the battery might reveal. The least imaginative man could see that here was an invention that would be epoch-making, but the most visionary dreamer could not even vaguely adumbrate the real measure of its importance.

It was evident at once that almost any form of galvanic battery, despite imperfections, was a more satisfactory instrument for generating electricity than the frictional machine hitherto in use, the advantage lying in the fact that the current from the galvanic battery could be controlled practically at will, and that the apparatus itself was inexpensive and required comparatively little attention. These advantages were soon made apparent by the practical application of the electric current in several fields.

It will be recalled that despite the energetic endeavors of such philosophers as Watson, Franklin, Galvani, and many others, the field of practical application of electricity was very limited at the close of the eighteenth century. The lightning-rod had come into general use, to be sure, and its value as an invention can hardly be overestimated. But while it was the result of extensive electrical discoveries, and is a most practical instrument, it can hardly be called one that puts electricity to practical use, but simply acts as a means of warding off the evil effects of a natural manifestation of electricity. The invention, however, had all the effects of a mechanism which turned electricity to practical account. But with the advent of the new kind of electricity the age of practical application began.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.