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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.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations xi Acknowledgments xiii Abbreviations xvii Introduction 1 Chapter 1 THE MAKING OF A NATURAL PHILOSOPHER From Amateur, to Expert, to Public Servant 7 The Town 9 The Family 12 Lifestyle 14 Education 15 "A More Enlightened Age" 19 Literary Interests 21 Views on Religion and Secularization 22 From Amateur, to Expert, to Public Servant 27 Emotional Life 33 Investigative Style 39 Conclusion 41 Chapter 2 ENLIGHTENMENT SCIENCE SOUTH OF THE ALPS The Italian Scientific Community in the Age of Volta 44 The Soil and the Institutions 48 The Scholars: Provenance and Fields of Interest 52 Prosopography 56 The Circulation of Enlightenment Literature 62 Views from the Outside 65 Conclusion 70 Chapter 3 THE ELECTROPHORUS Theory, Instrument Design, and the Social Uses of Scientific Apparatus 73 Fire, Magnetism, Electricity 76 "Vindicating Electricity" 83 Attraction and the Atmospheres 86 Disenchanted Theorist 90 Scientific Instruments and Their Social Uses 91 The Path to the Electrophorus 95 Instrument Design 100 Publicizing Discovery 104 Conclusion 108 Chapter 4 VOLTA'S SCIENCE OF ELECTRICITY Conception, Laboratory Work, and Public Recognition 110 Reluctant Theorist 110 Midrange Conceptualization and a New Machine: Capacity, Tension, "Actuation," and the Condensatore 112 Natural Philosopher or Inventor of Amusements Electriques? 121 Explanatory Models and Presentation Strategies: True Causes vs. Instrumentalism 125 Volta's Laboratory: Measuring Electricity 129 Volta on Coulomb 137 Conclusion 141 Chapter 5 THE COSMOPOLITAN NETWORK Volta and Communication among Experts in Late Enlightenment Europe 146 Overcoming Isolation 149 Exploring the Republic of Letters: The Neighborhoods 153 Facing the Peers: Paris in 1782 156 Anglophilia 160 Continental Europe and the German-Speaking Countries 164 After 1789 168 Conclusion 172 Chapter 6 THE BATTERY Invention, Instrumentalism, and Competitive Imitation 178 Galvanism, Electrometer in Hand 179 The Hunt for Weak Electricity 186 The Electricity of Animals 190 Nicholson's Contribution to Volta's Discovery 196 Building the Battery 202 Conclusion: Invention, Instrumentalism, and Competitive Imitation 207 Chapter 7 APPROPRIATING INVENTION The Reception of the Voltaic Battery in Europe 211 Spreading the News 212 Replicating the Instrument 221 Appropriating the Battery 224 A Name for All Purposes 246 From Philosophic Instrument to Patented Device 248 Conclusion 250 Chapter 8 THE SCIENTIST AS HERO Volta and the Uses of Past Science in the Industrial Era 257 Admitted to "Galileo's Tribune" 258 Secular Saint in the Positivist Calendar 259 "The Triumph of Science" 261 In the Nobel Laureates' Era 263 Conclusion 270 Chapter 9 CONCLUSION: SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND CONTINGENCY Enlightenment Legacies 273 Invention 273 "Useful Knowledge" and Unintended Consequences 275 "The Quantifying Spirit" 278 Investment 279 Value Assessments 280 Contingency 283 Enlightenment Legacies 286 Notes 291 Bibliography 337 Index 367

Promotional Information

Pancaldi's book is the best thing on Volta that has ever been written. The author's command of the scientific issues is impeccable, and his presentation of the contributions and reactions of Volta's contemporaries is equally successful. -- Charles C. Gillispie, Princeton University This work is a splendid contribution to knowledge that will have wide appeal. It deals with a seminal figure in the development of science--an intellectual giant who was to some real extent a self-made scientist. Presenting the story in clear and dramatic terms, the book is a milestone in our understanding of Enligh

About the Author

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


"This is by far the best book about Volta in English... It is contextual, unawed, and enriched by new manuscript material. It is also far more than just a biography. Based on this study of one individual's electrical activities, Pancaldi makes general arguments about the culture of science at the end of the Enlightenment."--Patricia Fara, Times Literary Supplement "In this detailed and ambitious book, Volta's life and the fascinating and complicated patterns that led to the battery are beautifully described... Every chapter has an interesting and original thesis, shows detailed and painstaking knowledge of manuscripts and adds to our knowledge of Volta and his time."--Fabio Bevilacqua, American Scientist "An insightful chronicle of an individual genius riding global tides of cultural transformation... A fascinating mix of science and biography."--Booklist "Giuliano Pancaldi's engaging book contributes substantially to a reappraisal of the sciences of the Enlightenment, as well as providing a wealth of information about Volta's life and accomplishments... [I]t is an impressive accomplishment that significantly advances the historiography of the sciences in enlightened Europe."--Jan Golinski, American Historical Review "This is a remarkable study of Alessandro Volta's science of electricity in its social and cultural context, one that adds significantly to the scholarship on Enlightenment science and technology. The first monograph on Volta to appear in English, it offers an in-depth contextual analysis of his experimental practice founded on Guiliano Pancaldi's detailed knowledge of the sources."--Massimo Mazzotti, Technology and Culture "This is by far the best book about Volta in English... It is also far more than just a biography. Based on this study of one individual's electrical activities, Pancaldi makes general arguments about the culture of science at the end of the enlightenment."--Patricia Fara, Chemical Heritage "Giuliano Pancaldi's study of Alessandro Volta reveals the vast international trade in scientific knowledge that, by the end of the eighteenth century, had transformed the promotion of experiment. Pancaldi's treatment of Volta as a major figure in the revolutionary world of the late eighteenth century is an important addition to studies of a scientific public."--Larry Stewart, Business History Review

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