Cover image for Volta : science and culture in the Age of Enlightenment
Volta : science and culture in the Age of Enlightenment
Pancaldi, Giuliano.
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Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2003]

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xv, 381 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm
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QC515.V8 P36 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Giuliano Pancaldi sets us within the cosmopolitan cultures of Enlightenment Europe to tell the story of Alessandro Volta--the brilliant man whose name is forever attached to electromotive force. Providing fascinating details, many previously unknown, Pancaldi depicts Volta as an inventor who used his international network of acquaintances to further his quest to harness the power of electricity. This is the story of a man who sought recognition as a natural philosopher and ended up with an invention that would make an everyday marvel of electric lighting.

Examining the social and scientific contexts in which Volta operated--as well as Europe's reception of his most famous invention-- Volta also offers a sustained inquiry into long-term features of science and technology as they developed in the early age of electricity. Pancaldi considers the voltaic cell, or battery, as a case study of Enlightenment notions and their consequences, consequences that would include the emergence of the "scientist" at the expense of the "natural philosopher."

Throughout, Pancaldi highlights the complex intellectual, technological, and social ferment that ultimately led to our industrial societies. In so doing, he suggests that today's supporters and critics of Enlightenment values underestimate the diversity and contingency inherent in science and technology--and may be at odds needlessly.

Both an absorbing biography and a study of scientific and technological creativity, this book offers new insights into the legacies of the Enlightenment while telling the remarkable story of the now-ubiquitous battery.

Author Notes

Giuliano Pancaldi is Professor of the History of Science at the University of Bologna. His books include Darwin in Italy: Science across Cultural Frontiers .

Reviews 1

Booklist Review

In the life of the man whose study of an electric fish culminated in the invention of the voltaic battery, Italian historian Pancaldi limns an insightful chronicle of an individual genius riding global tides of cultural transformation. Though he allows Alessandro Volta his full human complexity--childhood speculations about the spiritual powers of animals, midlife romance with an opera singer--Pancaldi focuses chiefly on the episodes that transformed a precocious amateur into an internationally recognized authority on the strange phenomena of electricity. A key chapter particularly details the serendipitous 1796-99 experiments with torpedo fish that led to Volta's much-acclaimed invention of the battery. But even more illuminating than the explanation of Volta's laboratory research is Pancaldi's analysis of the rapidly changing milieu in which that research took place. For in that milieu, readers see a world just beginning to define the scientist as a lionized new social type, a world tentatively developing capacities for converting scientific breakthroughs into industrial technology. A fascinating mix of science and biography. --Bryce Christensen Copyright 2003 Booklist

Table of Contents

Illustrations xi
Acknowledgments xiii
Abbreviations xvii
Introductionp. 1
Chapter 1 The Making of a Natural Philosopher From Amateur, to Expert, to Public Servantp. 7
The Town|9
The Familyp. 12
Lifestylep. 14
Educationp. 15
"A More Enlightened Age"p. 19
Literary Interestsp. 21
Views on Religion and Secularizationp. 22
From Amateur, to Expert, to Public Servantp. 27
Emotional Lifep. 33
Investigative Stylep. 39
Conclusionp. 41
Chapter 2 Enlightenment Science South of the Alps The Italian Scientific Community in the Age of Voltap. 44
The Soil and the Institutionsp. 48
The Scholars: Provenance and Fields of Interestp. 52
Prosopographyp. 56
The Circulation of Enlightenment Literaturep. 62
Views from the Outsidep. 65
Conclusionp. 70
Chapter 3 The Electrophorus Theory, Instrument Design, and the Social Uses of Scientific Apparatusp. 73
Fire, Magnetism, Electricityp. 76
"Vindicating Electricity"p. 83
Attraction and the Atmospheresp. 86
Disenchanted Theoristp. 90
Scientific Instruments and Their Social Usesp. 91
The Path to the Electrophorusp. 95
Instrument Designp. 100
Publicizing Discoveryp. 104
Conclusionp. 108
Chapter 4 Volta's Science of Electricity Conception, Laboratory Work, and Public Recognitionp. 110
Reluctant Theoristp. 110
Midrange Conceptualization and a New Machine: Capacity, Tension, "Actuation," and the Condensatorep. 112
Natural Philosopher or Inventor of Amusements Eacute;lectriques?p. 121
Explanatory Models and Presentation Strategies: True Causes vs. Instrumentalismp. 125
Volta's Laboratory: Measuring Electricityp. 129
Volta on Coulombp. 137
Conclusionp. 141
Chapter 5 The Cosmopolitan Network Volta and Communication among Experts in Late Enlightenment Europep. 146
Overcoming Isolationp. 149
Exploring the Republic of Letters: The Neighborhoodsp. 153
Facing the Peers: Paris in 1782
156Anglophiliap. 160
Continental Europe and the German-Speaking Countriesp. 164
After 1789
168Conclusionp. 172
Chapter 6 The Battery Invention, Instrumentalism, and Competitive Imitationp. 178
Galvanism, Electrometer in Handp. 179
The Hunt for Weak Electricityp. 186
The Electricity of Animalsp. 190
Nicholson's Contribution to Volta's Discoveryp. 196
Building the Batteryp. 202
Conclusion: Invention, Instrumentalism, and Competitive Imitationp. 207
Chapter 7 Appropriating Invention The Reception of the Voltaic Battery in Europep. 211
Spreading the Newsp. 212
Replicating the Instrumentp. 221
Appropriating the Batteryp. 224
A Name for All Purposesp. 246
From Philosophic Instrument to Patented Devicep. 248
Conclusionp. 250
Chapter 8 The Scientist as Hero Volta and the Uses of Past Science in the Industrial Erap. 257
Admitted to "Galileo's Tribune"p. 258
Secular Saint in the Positivist Calendarp. 259
"The Triumph of Science"p. 261
In the Nobel Laureates' Erap. 263
Conclusionp. 270
Chapter 9 Conclusion: Science, Technology, and Contingency Enlightenment Legaciesp. 273
Inventionp. 273
"Useful Knowledge" and Unintended Consequencesp. 275
"The Quantifying Spirit"p. 278
Investmentp. 279
Value Assessmentsp. 280
Contingencyp. 283
Enlightenment Legaciesp. 286
Notesp. 291
Bibliographyp. 337
Indexp. 367