Count Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta was born in Como, Lombardy, on February 18, 1745. Volta was born to nobility that had moved down in social station. Unlike his siblings, young Alessandro did not enter the church.
His young childhood did not show the makings of a prodigy. It was not until the age of four that he talked, and his family was convinced that he was retarded. However, at the age of seven when his father died, he was at the level of other children and then began to march ahead. By the age of fourteen, he made up his mind to be a physicist.
Volta became fascinated with the phenomenon of the age, electricity. He became so enamored with it that he wrote an excellent Latin poem on the subject. In 1774, he was appointed professor of physics in the Como high school and the next year he invented electrophorous, a charge- accumulating machine.
Volta's fame spread as result. In 1778, Volta was the first to isolate the compound methane, a major constituent of natural gas.
Further, in 1779, he received a professorial appointment at the University of Pavia, where he continued his work with electricity. He invented other gadgets involving static electricity and received the Copley medal of the Royal Society, where he was elected to membership, in 1791.
The major feat of his life involved not static electricity, but dynamic electricity- the electric current. Following the experiments of Galvani, who was a friend of his and sent copies of his papers on the subject, Volta attacked the question of whether the electric current resulting when muscle was in contact with two different metals arose from the tissue or from the metals.
To check this he decided in 1794 to make use of the metals alone, without the tissue. He found at once that an electric current resulted and maintained that it therefore had nothing to do with life or tissue. This sparked a controversy between the two Italians with the German Humboldt, the chief of Galvani's supporters, and the Frenchman Coulomb, the chief of Volta's. The weight of the evidence leaned more and more heavily toward Volta, and Galvani died embittered.
In 1800 Volta virtually clinched the victory by constructing a device that would produce a large flow of electricity. Volta's device was an "electric battery"- the first in history. The invention of the battery lifted Volta's fame to its pinnacle. He was called to France by Napoleon in 1801 for a kind of "command performance"of his experiments. He received many medals and decorations, including the Legion of Honor, and was even made a count and, in 1810, a senator of the kingdom of Lombardy.
Throughout his life, though, Volta was able to shift with the changing politics of the time and to remain in good graces with whatever government was in power. After Napoleon fell and Austria became dominant in Italy once more, Volta continued to excel and to receive posts of high honor. Volta received his greatest honor, however, at the hands of no ruler, but of his fellow scientists. The unit of electromotive force- the driving force that moves the electric current- is now called the "volt."
The energy of moving charged particles produced by modern atom-smashing machines is measured in electron-volts. A billion electron-volts is abbreviated "bev," and when we speak of the particular atom-smasher called the bevatron, the "v" in the name stands for Volta.