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How Alessandro Volta invented the battery and won over Napoleon

Volta amazes Napoleon with his battery.
Volta amazes Napoleon with his battery.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Alessandro Volta made Napoleon his lab buddy (he also got the volt named after him, which is almost as good.)

The chemical battery was only one of Volta's amazing inventions — and his life was fascinating, including being a scientific ambassador to one of history's most legendary conquerors.

Who was Alessandro Volta, and what did he do?

Born in 1745 in Como, Italy, Volta was a physicist during the fertile age of discovery that followed Isaac Newton. His early accomplishments included perfecting the electrophorus in 1775 (a reliable way to produce static electricity that intrigued many scientists, including Ben Franklin). He also discovered methane gas in 1778 (which Franklin had also been working on).

But Volta is best known for the work he did after becoming a professor at the University of Pavia in 1779. He began studying electricity, which was a poorly understood phenomenon at the time, by using twitching frogs. His contemporaries thought that a certain "animal electricity" came from the frogs, but Volta came to believe the frogs were conductors. That made him seek a better and more stable way to examine electricity.

In 1800 he invented the voltaic pile, which was one of the first electric batteries. It was essentially a stack of alternating metal discs separated by brine-soaked material that helped make them more conductive. At the time, it was such a new idea that Volta called it "the artificial electric organ." The voltaic pile became one of the first reliable sources of electricity, and that new source of study enabled many discoveries in the field, from the understanding of the electrolysis of water to the research of electric arcs.

The process is simple enough that you can use it to make your own battery using a few coins.

Why is the volt named for him?

A volt is a measure of electric potential — somewhat analogous to the water pressure in pipes (there's a good explanation here). Think about how the pressure in a hose increases by cranking up the faucet, and you have an idea of how high voltage can build up.

The volt is named for Volta because his voltaic pile was the beginning of the battery — and for decades it was the best way to reliably provide electricity. The term became standard at the International Electrical Congress of 1881.

Did Volta make anything besides batteries?

Volta's methane gun.

Volta's amazing methane pistol. (Universal Images/Getty Images)

Yes. The best part about being a pioneer in early physics is that you could be an experimental superstar without having to create a Large Hadron Collider.

In addition to being the first person to discover methane, Volta put it to good use, tinkering with a homemade gun that he filled with methane and lit with his electrophorus. (Yes, Volta predated MacGyver by 200 years— see the swamp-gas-powered bamboo bomb in season two, episode 12.)

That unique mix of intellect and experimentation earned him a commendation from Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1801, Volta demonstrated his battery for the French leader and promptly earned a nice gold medal, was declared a count, and became a senator for the Kingdom of Lombardy. Volta's legacy is just as luxurious — he's remembered near his hometown with a museum on the shores of Lake Como (near where George Clooney lives).