Honoring Alessandro Volta

Today, we’re celebrating a giant of science – Alessandro Volta. His legacy is something we engage with daily, albeit often unconsciously. Every time we discuss voltage-gated ion channels, use a voltage clamp, or analyze volt-ampere curves, we’re walking in the footsteps of Volta. The very term “volt,” as fundamental to the field of electrophysiology as the heartbeat is to life, commemorates this pioneer. His work in the late 18th and early 19th centuries has had a lasting impact on science and technology, making him a key figure in the history of electricity.

When speaking of Volta’s monumental contribution, it is impossible not to mention his debate with Luigi Galvani over the nature of electricity. This debate, often referred to as the Galvani-Volta controversy, was a fundamental moment in the history of science. It not only marked a significant advancement in our understanding of electricity but also laid the groundwork for the fields of electrophysiology and electrochemistry.

In the 1780s, Galvani discovered that the muscles of dead frogs twitched when struck by an electrical spark. This observation led him to propose the theory of “animal electricity,” suggesting that electrical forces are the means by which nerves cause muscle movements. Galvani believed that this electricity was a unique property of living tissue.

Volta, on the other hand, was skeptical of Galvani’s theory of animal electricity. Through his experiments, Volta concluded that the electrical effects observed by Galvani were not due to an intrinsic property of the animal tissue but rather were produced by the metals that Galvani used to connect the frog’s muscles and nerves.

Volta’s research led him to invent the voltaic pile in 1800, which was the first device to produce a steady electrical current and is considered the precursor to the modern electrical battery. Volta showed us that electrical currents could be generated chemically, providing a consistent source of energy that could be studied and harnessed.

A few sources report that the design of Volta’s voltaic pile was inspired by the electric eel. In 2019, a newly identified species of electric eel was named Electrophorus voltai, in honor of Alessandro Volta. Capable of producing a staggering 860V, Electrophorus voltai stands as the most potent bioelectricity generator known to date.

Alessandro Volta’s contributions to science have left an indelible mark on our world, influencing not just the field of electricity but our everyday lives. Today, we celebrate a visionary whose discoveries continue to power our lives in profound ways.