The Alessandro Volta Tour of Lake Como

Tenaya Hurst is a big fan of Alessandro Volta's work. She walks you through his native town - Como, Italy.
Lake Como Italy boasts stunning views, and an important resident from hundreds of years ago, still, takes the focus. His contributions to our modern world are appreciated every minute, as we use batteries and electricity for everything. Alessandro Volta is one of Como’s heroes, and is celebrated all around town. Visit the Tempio Voltiano, the museum dedicated to Alessandro and his experiments. Built by Francesco Somaini in 1927 to commemorate 100 years after Alessandro’s death.

Stroll through the absolutely adorable streets of Como and find yourself on Via Alessandro Volta leading you north towards the lake.

Via Alessandro Volta naturally goes through the Piazza Alessandro Volta where there is a magnificent statue of Alessandro. Sculpted by Pompeo Marchesi, with a base created by Franceso Durelli, it was inaugurated in 1838.

When you are on the lake or lakeside, take a look at the shiny artwork made by Daniel Libeskind to honor Alessandro entitled “Life Electric.” This gorgeous piece of art was dedicated very recently, on October 2nd, 2015.

Take the funicular railway up the hill to the town of Brunate, then take a slightly brutal hike to the Faro Voltiano. This is a lighthouse built in 1927 by Gabriele Giussani, made in Alessandro’s honor, to overlook Como and on a clear day, you can see all the way to Milan.

Alessandro Volta was born on February 18th 1745 in Como Italy. Until the age of four, he did not speak! His family was relatively well-off, but regardless, it was a tragedy when Alessandro at age 7, lost his father who left many unpaid debts. Luckily, Alessandro’s uncle resumed homeschooling him until the age of 12. Briefly, Alessandro attended a Jesuit school but did not want to become a priest, so he finished at the Benzi Seminary until he was 18. The Jesuit school wanted him to be a priest, his family wanted him to be a lawyer, but Alessandro wanted to be a scientist. Though as a toddler, he did not speak, as an adult he was fluent in numerous languages and eager to communicate with scientists beyond the shores of Lake Como. He began writing letters to two of his physicist idols, Jean-Antoine Nollet in Paris and Giambatista Beccaria in Turin. Both encouraged him in different ways, even to have a healthy debate and to fuel Alessandro’s fire to learn and experiment.

By 1765, Giulio Cesare Gattoni, another Como resident, and friend of the Volta family, had built a physics lab in his home. Alessandro was lucky to receive books from Gattoni who also allowed Alessandro to conduct experiments in the lab. This propelled Alessandro to present his first paper that year about static electricity and was very proud to send it to his idol, Beccaria. Alessandro launched into a career of questioning electrical attraction in comparison to magnets and gravity.

By 1774, Alessandro was also involved in the educational system of Como, advocating for students to spend more time on science and languages…a little narcissistic for his own interests, but he was also ahead of his time knowing that we would eventually be living in a worldwide maker movement! Alessandro even taught experimental physics to grammar school students, so he really believed in introducing science at a young age. Alessandro continued experimenting with methane gas, dreaming of sending electrical pulses from Como to Milan, and inventing a better eudiometer (a device that tests how much oxygen is in the air.)

Like a true maker and scientist, Alessandro’s success came from asking questions, researching, experimenting, and collaborating with contemporary scientists. Also, Alessandro’s discoveries and inventions are in part thanks to the work of previous scientists like Luigi Galvani, Roger Boscovich, Ben Franklin, and Isaac Newton. We are all building upon a greater scientific knowledge and some individuals are remembered more by history, but many people ultimately contributed to achieving those discoveries. Think of all the inventions that Volta’s inventions and experiments went on to inspire (and continue to do so!).

In the time Alessandro lived, communication was very different than today, and obviously, there was no worldwide social media! Johann Wilcke, a German physicist, had invented a static electricity device in 1762. Alessandro had invented a device for the same purpose, to demonstrate static electricity, in 1765 and called it the electrophorus. Joseph Priestley’s 1767 “The History and Present State of Electricity", discussed Wilcke’s device, but Alessandro didn’t read the paper until 1771. Alessandro finally had time to write to Priestley in 1775 to discuss it! Ultimately one scientist is “first,” however, this is a unique case since both scientists, Wilcke and Volta, lived in different countries and were obviously both passionate about electrical experimentation. Priestley, a scientist himself, is credited with many discoveries including coal is electrically conductive. Through letters and publishing papers, these great chemists and physicists were able to learn and share, just the way that we do now on the internet!

There really is too much to say about Alessandro Volta, I encourage you to read more about him, as I could go on for days! By 1800, Alessandro had fully invented the first battery and the best part about it was that anyone could make their own - just like makers today are given tools like Arduino that make electricity accessible to learn at a small scale, while still focusing on all the great parts of it: chemistry, physics, math, and experimentation! We can only imagine what
Alessandro Volta would have made if he could have added computers and code to his electricity.

More about Volta:

The scientific unit of electric potential is named in his honor as the Volt.

Traveled throughout Europe to demonstrate his electrical experiments.

Inspired by Luigi Galvani’s work with “animal electricity” and frog legs.

Discovered methane gas and its explosive capabilities

Invented the electrical battery.

Invented the capacitor.

Built and invented instruments to measure electricity.

He discovered contact electricity and two kinds of electric conduction.

He hung out with Napolean.



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