Voltaic pile

Voltaic pile
A copper-zinc voltaic pile.
A voltaic pile on display in the Tempio Voltiano.

A voltaic pile is a set of individual Galvanic cells placed in series. The voltaic pile, invented by Alessandro Volta in 1800, was the first electric battery. Building on Galvani's 1780s discovery of how a circuit of two metals and a frog's leg can cause the frog's leg to respond, Volta demonstrated in 1791 that when two metals and brine-soaked cloth or cardboard are arranged in a circuit they produce an electric current. In 1800, Volta stacked several pairs of alternating copper (or silver) and zinc discs (electrodes) separated by cloth or cardboard soaked in brine (electrolyte) to increase the electrolyte conductivity.[1] When the top and bottom contacts were connected by a wire, an electric current flowed through the voltaic pile and the connecting wire.


Electromotive force

The strength of the pile is expressed in terms of its electromotive force, or emf, given in volts. Volta characterized the emf of a pair of metals in terms of the difference in their voltages, which he could measure. His theory of contact tension considered that the emf, which drives the electric current through a circuit containing a voltaic cell, occurs at the contact between the two metals. Sir Humphry Davy and Andrew Crosse were among the first to develop large voltaic piles.[2]


On March 20, 1800, Volta wrote to the London Royal Society to describe the technique for producing electric current using his pile. On learning of the voltaic pile, William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle used it to discover the electrolysis of water. Humphry Davy showed that the electromotive force, which drives the electric current through a circuit containing a single voltaic cell, was caused by a chemical reaction, not by the voltage difference between the two metals. He also used the voltaic pile to decompose chemicals and to produce new chemicals. William Hyde Wollaston showed that electricity from voltaic piles had identical effects to those of electricity produced by friction. In 1802 Vasily Petrov used voltaic piles in the discovery and research of electric arc effects.


Because Volta believed that the emf occurred at the contact between the two metals, Volta's piles had a different design than the modern design illustrated on this page. His piles had one extra disc of copper at the top, in contact with the zinc, and one extra disc of zinc at the bottom, in contact with the copper. Expanding on the work of his mentor Davy, in the early 1830s, Faraday studied voltaic cells in detail. This led to his founding of the area of electrochemistry. The words "electrode" and "electrolyte", used above to describe Volta's work, are due to Faraday.

Dry pile

A number of high-voltage dry piles were invented between the early 19th century and the 1830s in an attempt to determine the source of electricity of the wet voltaic pile, and specifically to support Volta’s hypothesis of contact tension. Indeed, Volta himself experimented with a pile whose cardboard discs had dried out, probably accidentally.

The first to publish was Johann Wilhelm Ritter in 1802, albeit in an obscure journal, but over the next decade, it was announced repeatedly as a new discovery. One form of dry pile is the Zamboni pile. The dry pile was the ancestor of the modern dry cell.


  1. ^ Paul Fleury Mottelay (2008). Bibliographical History of Electricity and Magnetism (Reprint of 1892 ed.). Read Books. p. 247. ISBN 1443728446. http://books.google.com/books?id=9vzti90Q8i0C&pg=PA246&lpg=RA1-PA247. 
  2. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 edition, Volume V09, Page 185

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Voltaic pile — Voltaic Vol*ta ic, a. [Cf. F. volta[ i]que, It. voltaico.] [1913 Webster] 1. Of or pertaining to Alessandro Volta, who first devised apparatus for developing electric currents by chemical action, and established this branch of electric science;… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • voltaic pile — Pile Pile, n. [F. pile, L. pila a pillar, a pier or mole of stone. Cf. {Pillar}.] 1. A mass of things heaped together; a heap; as, a pile of stones; a pile of wood. [1913 Webster] 2. A mass formed in layers; as, a pile of shot. [1913 Webster] 3.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • voltaic pile — n. an early type of primary cell used to generate direct current: it consisted of a stack of paired disks of dissimilar metals separated by acid saturated cloth or paper …   English World dictionary

  • voltaic pile — noun battery consisting of voltaic cells arranged in series; the earliest electric battery devised by Volta (Freq. 2) • Syn: ↑pile, ↑galvanic pile • Hypernyms: ↑battery, ↑electric battery * * * noun …   Useful english dictionary

  • voltaic pile — Voltos elementas statusas T sritis Standartizacija ir metrologija apibrėžtis Galvaninis elementas, sudarytas iš vario ir cinko plokštelių NaCl tirpale. atitikmenys: angl. Volta pile; voltaic pile vok. Volta Element, n rus. элемент Вольта, m pranc …   Penkiakalbis aiškinamasis metrologijos terminų žodynas

  • Voltaic pile — Voltos elementas statusas T sritis chemija apibrėžtis Elektrocheminis elementas, sudarytas iš vario ir cinko plokštelių NaCl tirpale. atitikmenys: angl. Volta pile; Voltaic pile rus. элемент Вольта …   Chemijos terminų aiškinamasis žodynas

  • voltaic pile — Voltos elementas statusas T sritis fizika atitikmenys: angl. Volta pile; voltaic pile vok. Volta Element, n rus. элемент Вольта, m pranc. élément voltaïque, m …   Fizikos terminų žodynas

  • Voltaic pile — Voltos stulpelis statusas T sritis fizika atitikmenys: angl. Voltaic pile vok. Voltaische Spalte, f; Volta Säule, f rus. вольтов столбец, m pranc. pile galvanique, f …   Fizikos terminų žodynas

  • voltaic pile — /vɒlˌteɪɪk ˈpaɪl/ (say vol.tayik puyl) noun an early form of voltaic battery consisting of a number of voltaic cells joined in series, each one containing a sheet of copper and a sheet of zinc separated by a piece of cloth moistened with dilute… …  

  • voltaic pile — Elect. an early battery cell, consisting of several metal disks, each made of one of two dissimilar metals, arranged in an alternating series, and separated by pads moistened with an electrolyte. Also called galvanic pile, pile, Volta s pile.… …   Universalium

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