Exactly like a Stingray

Simon Schaffer

  • Volta: Science and Culture in the Age of Enlightenment by Giuliano Pancaldi
    Princeton, 381 pp, £22.95, June 2003, ISBN 0 691 09685 6

It is well enough known that Napoleon’s victory over the Austrian army at Marengo on 14 June 1800 had a major effect on the history of the menu. The surprising haste of the engagement left the French commissariat far behind its commander, whose hunger had to be satisfied with what his cook had to hand: a scrawny chicken butchered with a sabre, some eggs, tomatoes, oil, garlic and a few crayfish. Such is the legend of the origin of chicken Marengo. Less well known is the effect of the same battle on physics. In the scientific story, as in the culinary one, long-term outcomes were unpremeditated. Napoleon’s triumph restored French control over Lombardy, from where his armies had been expelled the previous year, allowed Pavia University to reopen, and restored that university’s greatest physicist, Alessandro Volta, to citizenship of the French-dominated Cisalpine Republic.

Just three months earlier, Volta had written down the instructions for making a new device he had concocted, capable of providing a seemingly inexhaustible, if weak, electrical flow from a pile of silver and zinc discs, each pair separated by moistened card. The effect of Marengo was to make Volta’s invention, published a few weeks after the battle, a French one: it gained him a gold medal from the Institut de France and entry into the Bonapartist pantheon. The word ‘pile’ became the standard name for the device, at least within the suddenly enlarged French domains. In Britain, where Volta first sent news of his work, the pile was more pugnaciously baptised a ‘battery’. Volta himself thought of it as an artificial electric fish. The ironies, contingencies and oddities of this story provide the main theme of Giuliano Pancaldi’s book.

In 1800, Pancaldi writes, ‘the battery had only limited useful applications,’ yet it ‘paved the way for technological developments that would modify an entire civilisation’. He takes this as a paradigm of the way the endeavours of enlightened artisans, natural philosophers and experimenters didn’t turn out as they expected. From it he concludes that the 18th-century enterprise of Enlightenment scarcely planned, and was often taken off guard by, the effects its works ultimately had on public life and industry. So, according to Pancaldi, it is wrong to attribute to the Enlightenment the monolithic and visionary rationalism which both disciples and critics have found in its stern deliverances. Rather, Volta’s career illuminates a diverse European world whose purposes were often contingent, improvised and unpredictable. Volta did not set out to bottle a universal source of light and power with his newfangled recipe, though this does not mean that his electrical enlightenment was sundered from social change, practical engineering and lucrative trade.

The tale of the artificial electric fish is utterly different from some recent hagiographical accounts of enlightened enquiry. Unlike Dava Sobel’s popular caricature of the clockmaker John Harrison, for example, Pancaldi’s carefully characterised Volta was not a solitary persecuted genius hunting the solution to the great scientific problem of his time. Other equally ludicrous fables of the progress of science and technology tell us that the key to understanding the past of the natural sciences is to trace the royal road of abstract mathematics and disinterested theory. Volta’s work as an experimental philosopher, machine maker and ambitious citizen of the world shows the poverty of this picture. Responding with agility to the exigencies of local and international colleagues and competitors, he navigated his way through the stormy world of late 18th-century European society, offering his patrons and correspondents startling blueprints for new machines and novel pictures of nature’s capacities. These were then debated and revised, in a pattern of what Pancaldi calls ‘competitive imitation’. Volta is to be understood alongside many similar figures of the late Enlightenment, a maker and victim of fashion and markets, an ambitious, often frustrated entrepreneur seeking his place in the unstable society of the fading old regime. The electric battery presents a neat way of probing this world and a sign of its vagaries. It is no mean feat of Pancaldi’s to have recovered so much rich material from an unpromising pile of damp metal discs.

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