Frog Legs and the Modern Battery

If it hadn't been for Alessandro Volta, you might have frogs in your radios and flashlights instead of batteries. Back in 1771, Luigi Galvani, one of Volta's friends and fellow-Italians, noticed a strange reaction when a frog's leg came into contact with a spark from a machine – it twitched. Believing that the twitch originated in the frogs leg itself, Galvani devised an "animal electricity" experiment by setting a frogs\leg between two different metals. Sure enough, the muscles in the frogs leg twitched. Being a man of science, when Volta heard of his friend's experiment, he decided to put it to the test. In his own experiments he also saw that the frogs leg twitched when set between two metals, but he did not share in Galvani's conclusion that the electrical current came from the muscles in the frogs leg. And thus began the invention of the first battery.

When Volta saw the muscle twitching, instead of changing around the types of metal at each end of the frog leg, he decided to do away with the leg. To achieve the same effect, Volta first set up a couple bowls of salt water. He then fashioned a metal arc with tin at one end and copper at the other. By setting one end of the arc in one bowl, and the other in another bowl, Volta was able to replicate the "animal electricity" experiment without having to ruin his appetizer (providing he had a taste for frogs legs, that is). By setting up over three sets of 20 bowls and running different patterns of metal arcs through them, Volta was able to test the possibilities of a closed circuit.

Eventually, by 1799, Volta would simplify his experiment by using spongy paper soaked in salt water and set between smaller discs of copper, silver or brass and tin or zinc. He would pair up the two metals and set the salted paper on top. By connecting a wire on the top and bottom of this little pile, Volta was able to produce a closed circuit. Volta found that the best metals for his experiment were silver and zinc, and he would try to keep the pattern of silver, zinc, and paper piled as high as possible — leading Volta to call his early battery a "column." These days, Volta's column of metals and paper is known as the Voltaic Pile, and is almost universally considered the forerunner of the modern batteries we use today.

So now you also know where we get the term "volt" — yup, it's in honor of Volta.

If you are interested in using rechargeable batteries you may want to visit the Batteries and Chargers section of our Web site.

As always, please contact us with any comments or article suggestions you might have.

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