A Ridiculously Brief History of Electricity

Luigi Galvani, an Italian professor of medicine, will forever be remembered as the fellow who made a dead frog’s leg twitch.  Like so many other scientific discoveries, Galvani had accidentally uncovered a fundamental tenet of natural science: electricity signals muscles to contract.  Unfortunately, he didn’t quite understand what he had unveiled.  He was convinced that the bodily fluids of the frog were the source of electricity, when in fact the fluids were acting as an electrolyte between two dissimilar metal plates.  Inadvertently, Galvani had uncovered the makings of a chemical battery. 

Galvani’s report of his investigations was read by a young English woman, which led to her entry in a ghost story contest.  Her story featured an electrically reanimated corpse, who would also be the main character in her later novel, Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.

Galvani’s name survives in the galvanic cell, the galvanometer, and galvanization.


Galvani, submitted his findings to a noted contemporary, Alessandro Volta, professor of physics at the University of Pavia. Volta soon began to discount Galvani's conclusions. Instead, Volta realized that Galvani's most significant discovery was "metallic electricity," which led to Volta's development of the modern chemical battery.

Disagreements between Galvani and Volta became legion to their peers, on a par with the legendary "battle of the currents" between Edison and Westinghouse a century later.

As a tribute to this physics professor, the unit of electrical potential, the volt, is named after Volta.

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