Battery: Voltaic Pile

In 1800, Alessandro Volta of Italy announced his invention of a device that produced a small but steady electrical current. His "voltaic pile" operated by placing pieces of cloth soaked in salt water between pairs of zinc and copper discs, as seen in this 1805 pile from Canisius College. Contact between the two metals creates a difference in potential (or pressure, or "voltage"), which in a closed circuit produces electric current. Voltaic piles mark the origin of modern batteries.
Before Volta's invention, electrical researchers like Benjamin Franklin worked with static charges. They learned much, but were limited by the fact that the electrical discharge was at very high potential and very low current; it also could be produced only in very short spurts. A source of flowing current allowed wider-ranging experiments that resulted in greater understanding of the links between electricity and other natural phenomena, including magnetism and light and heat. Batteries attracted the attention of many scientists and inventors, and by the 1840s were providing current for new electrical devices like Joseph Henry's electromagnets and Samuel Morse's telegraph.
Object Name
Date made
associated person
Volta, Alessandro
Physical Description
glass (overall material)
wood (overall material)
metal (overall material)
paper (overall material)
cotton (overall material)
overall: 21 1/4 in x 4 1/2 in; 53.975 cm x 11.43 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Energy & Power
See more items in
Work and Industry: Electricity
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
from Canisius College, Deptartmen of Physics thru Rev. J.J. Ruddick, S.J.

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