Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society in London, sat in the splendour of his office in Somerset House. It was an April morning in the year 1800. The clatter of horse-drawn carriages in the Strand rose to his window, but he did not notice; his attention was elsewhere. Staring into space, he clutched a letter that had been delivered to him that very morning. Dated March 20th and written in French, it had been sent from Como in Lombardy by an Italian professor of experimental physics named Alessandro Volta.
Professor Volta’s letter was clearly attended by some haste, since he had dispatched the first four pages in advance of the remainder, which was to follow. The subject matter was experiments on electricity, and the first pages of Volta’s letter to Banks described the invention of an apparatus “which will no doubt astonish you”.
On that April morning in London, Banks read the letter and was duly astonished. Volta’s apparatus, consisting of a series of discs of two different metals in contact separated by brine-soaked pasteboard, was capable of generating a continuous current of electricity. This was a world apart from the static electricity of the celebrated Leyden jar and indeed a most astonishing discovery; no wonder Volta was so anxious to communicate it without delay to Banks and thereby to the Royal Society – of which Volta was also a fellow.
Still clutching the letter, Joseph Banks regained his composure and collected his thoughts. He must of course arrange for the letter to be read to the Society, after which it would duly appear in print in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions.
In the meantime, Banks was naturally obliged to keep Volta’s discovery confidential. But then again, with a such an astonishing discovery as this, it was sorely tempting to show Signor Volta’s letter – in the strictest confidence of course – to certain individuals in his large circle of scientific acquaintances, who would surely be fascinated by its contents. What could be the harm in that?
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Yielding to temptation
The state of mind into which Sir Joseph Banks was propelled by Professor Volta’s letter was pertinently observed (albeit almost a century later) by Oscar Wilde in his play Lady Windermere’s Fan, in which Lord Darlington famously quips “I can resist everything but temptation.”
The London home of Joseph Banks, in Soho Square, was the centre of bustling scientific activity and attracted all the leading members of the scientific establishment. Within a month of receiving Volta’s letter, Banks had yielded to temptation and shown it to a number of acquaintances.
Among them was Anthony Carlisle, a fashionable London surgeon who was shortly to display remarkable abilities in the realm of physical chemistry. Having perused the letter, Carlisle immediately arranged for his friend the chemist William Nicholson to look over the pages with him, after which Carlisle set about constructing the apparatus according to Volta’s instructions – the fabled instrument we now call the Voltaic Pile.
So within a month of Volta’s hastened communication to Banks, the details of the construction of the Voltaic Pile had been leaked to, among others, Carlisle and Nicholson, enabling the latter to begin experiments with Volta’s apparatus that would lead to their privileged discovery of electrolysis, before Volta’s letter had even been read to – let alone published by – the Royal Society.
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The chronology of the case
Volta sends a letter (in French) from Como, Lombardy, to Sir Joseph Banks at the Royal Society in London, announcing his invention of the Voltaic pile.
Banks leaks the contents of Volta’s letter to several acquaintances, including Anthony Carlisle, who arranges for William Nicholson to view the letter.
Carlisle and Nicholson construct a Voltaic Pile according to Volta’s instructions. With this apparatus they discover the electrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Volta’s letter is read to the Royal Society.
William Nicholson publishes a paper in The Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry & the Arts, announcing the discovery of electrolysis by Anthony Carlisle and himself, using the Voltaic Pile.
Volta’s letter announcing his invention of the Voltaic pile is published in French in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and in English in The Philosophical Magazine.
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Mouse-over links to original papers mentioned in this post
Volta’s letter to Banks (begins on page 289)
Nicholson’s paper (begins on page 179)
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