Center For Integrating Research and Learning

Arrow1800 - 1819


The 19th century began with a landmark invention: the first battery, brainchild of Luigi Galvani’s nemesis, Alessandro Volta. Many scientific breakthroughs that came in the decades afterwards were applications of, improvements to or discoveries inspired by Volta’s device.

Voltaic Pile

Volta’s victory can be credited, in part, to Galvani’s defeat. At first suspecting Galvani’s theory of “animal electricity” was wrong, and then convinced of it, Volta definitively disproved it with the invention of the voltaic pile. Volta realized that when moisture comes between two different metals, electricity can be conducted. And he realized that the more layers you have, the more current you can generate. His pile consisted of layers of silver and zinc, with pieces of salt water-moistened paper in between.

This “artificial electric organ,” as its inventor called it, was the first instrument to produce and maintain an electric current and to create electricity through a chemical reaction. A vast improvement over electrostatic machines, it opened the door to all kinds of applications. The term volt, a measure of current, honors Volta’s achievement.

A mere two years after Volta’s accomplishment, Italian philosopher Gian Domenico Romagnosi was experimenting with the new battery when he noticed it deflected a magnetic needle. Although he recognized the astounding nature of his discovery – a link between electricity and magnetism – and an Italian newspaper reported it, the news somehow failed to make any waves in the scientific community. Seventeen years later, however, a Dane would happen upon the same discovery, and go down in history for it.

Davy Electrolysis

Inventors set to work looking for applications for the electricity Volta had harnessed. One of the first priorities was lighting, and from the early through mid 19th century, two types of electrical lights, arc lights and incandescent lights, were developed. Battery-powered arc lights came first, and English chemist Humphry Davy demonstrated an early prototype for the Royal Institution of London in 1810. These lights did not become practical until generators came along, however, and were fated to be usurped by incandescent lights.

1800 - 1819


Italian physicist Alessandro Volta announces to the Royal Society of London his invention of the first continuous electric current source and the predecessor to the battery, the voltaic pile, which he built by repeatedly layering silver, moist cardboard, and zinc and connecting the silver and zinc strata located at opposite ends of the pile with a wire.


Shortly after Volta’s announcement of the voltaic pile, chemist William Nicholson and surgeon Anthony Carlisle build the first English version of the device and discover that the current it produces can split water into two gasses, hydrogen and oxygen.


Johann Wilhelm Ritter, a German physicist, invents the dry voltaic cell, soon followed by an electric storage battery (1803).


Luigi Valentino, a student of Alessandro Volta, first utilizes the voltaic pile for electroplating.


In Italy Gian Domenico Romagnosi discovers a link between electricity and magnetism when he observes that a voltaic pile deflects a magnetic needle. An account of his discovery appears in an Italian newspaper but passes unnoticed by most of the scientific community.


English chemist Humphry Davy contends in a lecture that electrolysis can be used to break down all compounds into their elements and subsequently utilizes the process to successfully isolate sodium, potassium and the alkaline-earth metals.


Humphry Davy demonstrates the electric carbon arc light for members of the Royal Institution of London, a form of lighting that would not become practical for general use until more than half a century later.


French scientist Siméon-Denis Poisson publishes his equation for electric potential, which is a correction of an earlier equation developed by his compatriot Pierre-Simon LaPlace and delineates the relationship between charge distribution and potential.

Next Section Arrow1820-1829

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