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

Home Projects Experiments Warning!

Alessandro Volta and Luigi Galvani

Alessandro Volta’s Original "Pile", exhibited in the Volta Temple, Como, Italy.
CC 3.0 - GuidoB
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

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.

External 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.

Scientists & Inventors
Ampère André-Marie
Baird John
Bell Alexander
Carver George
Cavendish Henry
Darwin Charles
Eastman George
Edison Thomas 1
Edison Thomas 2
Einstein Albert
Electric Motor
Faraday Michael
Fitzroy Robert
Foucault Léon
Franklin Benjamin
Fuel Cell
Galileo Galilei 1
Galileo Galilei 2
Gutenberg Johannes
Hertz Heinrich
Joule, James Prescott
Leonardo da Vinci
Leeuwenhoek Antonie
Marconi Guglielmo
Mendel Gregor
Miller-Urey Experiment
Millikan Robert
Morse Samuel
Newton Isaac
Ohm Georg
Pavlov & Skinner
Pitch Drop Experiment
Radio Inventions
Spectrum of Light
Tesla Nikola
Torricelli Evangelista
Tycho Brahe
Volta Alessandro
Whitney Eli
Wright Brothers
Young Thomas
Zuse Konrad
Ampère André-Marie

Home Fair Projects Experiments
Scientists & Inventors Science Jokes Warning!

Follow Us On:

Privacy Policy - Site Map - About Us - Letters to the Editor

Comments and inquiries:

Last updated: February 2018
Copyright 2003-2018 Julian Rubin