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Philosophy of Technology

The Enlightenment and the Electric Battery

Giuliano Pancaldi
University of Bologna, Italy

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ABSTRACT: This paper is a discussion of the role played by the ideals of the Enlightenment in the invention and assessment of artifacts like the electric battery. The first electric battery was built in 1799 by Alessandro Volta, who was both a natural philosopher and an artisan-like inventor of intriguing machines. I will show that the story of Volta and the battery contains three plots, each characterized by its own pace and logic. One is the story of natural philosophy, a second is the story of artifacts like the battery, and the third is the story of the loose, long-term values used to assess achievement and reward within and outside expert communities. An analysis of the three plots reveals that late eighteenth-century natural philosophers, despite their frequent celebration of 'useful knowledge,' were not fully prepared to accept the philosophical dignity of artifacts stemming from laboratory practice. Their hesitation was the consequence of a hierarchy of ranks and ascribed competence that was well established within the expert community. In order to make artifacts stemming from laboratory practice fully acceptable within the domain of natural philosophy, some important changes had yet to occur. Still, the case overwhelmingly shows that artifacts rightly belong to the long and varied list of items that make up the legacy of the Enlightenment.

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The first electric battery was built towards the end of 1799 by a man who was both a natural philosopher - a member of the Republic of Letters of the late Enlightenment - and an artisan-like inventor of intriguing machines. The present paper is a discussion of the role played by Enlightenment ideals in the introduction and assessment of artifacts like the battery, that contributed to shaping our civilization.

To illustrate the main historiographical points I want to discuss, I will avail myself of the tools of iconology.

This (first transparency) is a portrait of the inventor of the battery, Alessandro Volta, professor of physics and Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Pavia, then part of Austrian Lombardy, around 1800. The portrait is not a great work of art, perhaps, but it is interesting for historians. Volta is portrayed with the symbols of his achievements, including some artifacts. I want to call your attention to these symbols, because they are linked to my main points.

The symbols in this portrait are of three, different kinds.

The book alludes to what Volta himself considered his main achievement. He regarded himself as an accomplished natural philosopher, and he regarded the concepts and theories of electricity expounded in his publications as his major achievement. And note that his publications made up a thick, seven volume collection. Conceptual contributions to the science of electricity, or to natural philosophy as it was still called, was what Volta wanted to be remembered for. Appropriately, in this portrait the book is shown in his hand and close to his heart.

The second kind of symbols contained in this painting are the instruments. They are shown in the foreground, at the bottom right. They are not in Volta's hand, and they are a bit farther away from his heart than the book is. But they stand by themselves, and occupy a prominent place. Volta's peers and the cultured public of the late Enlightenment regarded these instruments, rather than Volta's natural philosophy, as his most important achievement.

The instruments represented here are just two out of the many successful machines Volta conceived and circulated through Europe during his career. Let me say a little about each of them.

The instrument at the far-right is now little-known, but was very popular Europe-wide among "electricians" in the last quarter of the 18th century. Volta called it the "electrophorus" or, more emphatically and understandably, "the perpetual bearer of electricity". Once charged it was capable of very intriguing and, for those days, spectacular demonstrations of electricity.

The other instrument, second from right, is, unlike the electrophorus, still universally known: it is an electric battery. The type represented is the first kind of battery ever built. It was called the "pile", the "column", or the Voltaic battery. This was the first instrument ever built able to produce a steady electric current. That is, it was the first instrument to generate electricity in the form that opened the way to the thousands applications of electricity introduced in the two subsequent centuries.

Volta and his contemporaries perceived the novelty of the phenomena displayed by the battery. They also soon realized that the battery could be put to very interesting if little understood uses in fields like chemistry. Yet, Volta and his contemporaries could not point to almost any of the useful applications later associated with the battery, an instrument we now regard as perhaps the archetype of a useful device.

Volta, in any case, was a follower of the Enlightenment ideal of useful knowledge. He liked to represent his battery as a useful device.

You can perceive this from the way he built his batteries and represented them in print (second transparency). In a drawing like this, Volta represented his batteries as straightforward, easily-built machines, that could be combined to form powerful reservoirs of electricity. To obtain Volta's full satisfaction, batteries had to be portable apparatuses. Look at the cases in which some of the batteries are contained: Volta wanted his instrumens to be portable, if possible, and small enough to be carried in his pocket.

When visiting a foreign academy, university or salon in his frequent European tours Volta took pleasure in extracting from his pockets and demonstrating his intriguing apparatus. We can speculate that he felt the same pleasure an electronic engineer feels today when extracting an electronic agenda or a lap top of his own design from his pocket or bag. With one major difference, however: while the engineer, and all of us agree that the electronic agenda and the portable computer are useful, Volta could claim only that the battery "displayed electricity", a still controversial and mostly useless set of phenomena.

Let me stress this point. There is some irony, and also something very instructive in the fact that the battery, which we now regard as the archetype of the useful device, was the product of a man who indeed subscribed to the Enlightenment ideal of useful knowledge, and yet could not point to any convincing application for his device.

And the situation did not change quickly for the battery. Thirty years after its introduction Michael Faraday still regarded the battery as above all (his words) 'a magnificent instrument of philosophic research', not as a useful device.

Thus, to explain the pleasure we have supposed that an enlightened natural philosopher like Volta took in taking the battery out of his pocket we should not rely on the set of values we now use to assess technological achievement.

There seems to be one value, however, that has not changed much since Volta's day, or even from earlier days.

Among Volta's contemporaries it was agreed that, whatever the uncertainties about the performance, meaning and useful applications of the battery, the battery was a great achievement. The battery indeed appealed to many different audiences for different reasons. The new, intriguing sensations produced in human bodies by the electric current appealed to popular lecturers, and won the attention of the salons; while the melting of iron bars produced with big batteries appealed to the military, as we shall see.

Considerations of "achievement" and "reward" bring me to the third, and last, symbol contained in the portrait we know (first transparency again).

You may have noticed that in this portrait Volta is proud of showing a decoration, the ribbon of the Legion d'Honneur on the collar of his jacket. This was a major decoration in Napoleonic France. Napoleon had awarded Volta this and other rewards a few years after Volta had presented the battery in person to the Institut in Paris, in the presence of Bonaparte himself.

The episode of Napoleon rewarding Volta for the battery made a lasting impression on scientific and lay audiences. Let me consider briefly the iconography adopted to convey the vague notions of achievement and reward in the case of the battery.

In aristocratic buildings in Northern Italy you can still find paintings like this (third transparency).

Here you see Volta explaining the battery to Napoleon. The setting is appropriately aristocratic, as Volta himself and the people who commissioned the painting in the mid-19th century were. The Voltaic battery - despite its modest appearance, and the fact that the painter made no effort to convey its meaning and performance - occupies the center-stage. The battery is shown as the inconspicuous but important token of the negotiation going on between Volta and Napoleon, heavily draped with the symbols of power. This is I think a rather odd painting. But look at the next (fourth transparency).

Volta and the battery are also central in this representation of scientific achievement. The original is a fresco, painted in the 1870s in a room of one of the Orsini family's many "palazzi" (this one is in Genoa).

The title of the painting, as you would expect, is: "The Triumph of Science". Science is represented as a woman, a geometry book in her hand, surrounded by light: the light of an enlightened age. At her feet you see a figure laying: it is obscurantism defeated, of course. All around science is a crowd of at least forty natural philosophers from earlier ages, including Galileo and Newton.

This painting was made in the 1870s: the age of electricity applied to industry was clearly in sight. Accordingly, the meaning and impact of the battery are conveyed more explicitly than in the former fresco: the battery is shown on a table packed with other, obvious symbols of 19th-century technological achievements, such as the steam locomotive.

Napoleon is no longer there to negotiate between stately power and the achievements of the natural philosophers. Yet, power and its rhetoric are clearly there: they spread, as it were, from the high vaults of the building down to the attire of the natural philosophers. Were we to submit this painting to the analyses of iconology, it would turn out that there was continuity in the representation of philosophical and scientific achievement; a continuity that went on at least from the Baroque, through the Enlightenment, to well into the 19th century.

The reasons for this continuity are not difficult to grasp. Well into the industrial age people like this painter and his clients lacked a specific set of values with which to assess and eventually celebrate achievements like the battery. When in doubt, they used the symbols used to celebrate achievement and power in general.

Let me be schematic about my historiographical points. Looking at Volta's portrait again can help us fix the ideas (first transparency again).

What I want to emphasize is that, just as there are three different symbols in this portrait, in the story of the electric battery there were at least three different plots going on, each characterized by its own pace and logic, and each relevant to our understanding of the interplay between Enlightenment ideals and artifacts like the battery.

One plot (symbolized by the book) is the story of natural philosophy, that people like Volta still regarded as their main business. The second plot (represented by the electrophorus and the battery) is the story of artifacts that, unlike Volta, many contemporaries came to regard as his main achievement. The third plot (symbolized by the ribbon of the Legion d'Honneur) is the story of the loose, long-term values used to assess achievement and reward, both within and outside expert communities.

What I want to stress is that the three different objects I am talking about had quite different stories, and attained different degrees of recognition and success in their journeys across the Republic of Letters of the late-Enlightenment.

Volta's books - that is, his contributions to natural philosophy - did not travel easily across cultural frontiers despite the cosmopolitan spirit of the age: Volta made few converts to the Voltaic science of electricity. Instruments like the battery, on the other hand, were exceedingly successful travelers. The Voltaic battery was an amazingly simple and easy to replicate apparatus: it won the attention of experts and lay audiences Europe-wide within weeks of its first announcement on British and French newspapers, well before the publication of Volta's own paper in the "Philosophical Transactions" of the Royal Society of London announcing the new machine.

To sum up my main points:

The three plots I am pointing at - natural philosophy, the artifacts, and the reward system - all interacted in shaping Volta's investigative style and the public reception of instruments like the battery. Yet, as I said, each adopted a slightly different set of recognized values. Let me insist on this.

Volta and his fellow late 18th-century natural philosophers were not fully prepared to accept the "cultural dignity" of artifacts like the battery, that seemed to stem from laboratory and demonstration practice rather than from a convincing set of principles rooted in natural philosophy. Volta's and his contemporaries' hesitation in accepting the cultural dignity of artifacts like the battery was the consequence of a hierarchy of ranks and ascribed competence that was well established within the expert community of natural philosophers. In order to make the artifacts and the concepts that stemmed from laboratory practice fully acceptable within the domain of natural philosophy, some important changes had to occur in that hierarchy.

I will offer as a guess that it was precisely the work of natural philosophers and inventors like Volta, and the impact of instruments like the battery, that slowly modified the hierarchy of ascribed ranks of competence within the expert community.

By granting more room and more prestige to men like Volta and to instruments like the battery, the change in the hierarchy of ascribed competence contributed to the emergence of the new, 19th-century figure of the "scientist", and to the partial eclipse of the old figure of the "natural philosopher". Volta found himself in the middle of this process, and - unaware - he contributed to it above all with his machines.

The tensions caused by the shifts in the hierarchy of ascribed competence, on the other hand, were felt more acutely within the community of expert natural philosophers than outside it. Outside the expert community, public opinion and general educational institutions could be more flexible. The lack of a specific set of values against which to assess achievements like the battery allowed lay audiences to accommodate, and eventually celebrate, the new figure of the scientist and inventor like Volta just as easily as the old figure of the natural philosopher. The broad, loose, long-term, cross-cultural values associated with the notions of achievement and reward allowed Volta to enjoy on the public scene the rewards that some of his peers refused to grant him within the expert community of natural philosophers. The same loose set of values allowed patrons like Napoleon to exploit to their advantage on the European scene the achievements of figures like Volta and instruments like the battery.

Finally (fourth transparency again), the loose set of values associated with the notions of achievement and reward allowed the Voltaic battery - this little understood artifact for which in 1800 nobody could predict the bright future of - to enjoy center-stage in a painting like this. Everyone was thus reassured - as I think we still are - of the worth of an inconspicuous, "philosophical" artifact like the battery. A worth that should induce us to include the battery in the long and varied list of valuable items rightly belonging to the legacy of the Enlightenment.

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