Electricity! Galvanizer and destroyer

This blog post was written by Johanna Stevens-Yule

Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta both made names for themselves with their pioneering work on electricity—however; electricity would prove to be the destructive force to the majority of their actual instruments.

Here at the Science Museum we find ourselves in the position of owning Galvani’s very own electrostatic machine, but this so very easily might not have been the case. Unlike several other pieces of Galvani’s equipment, it escaped being destroyed in an 1899 fire.

 

By rotating the disc on the electrostatic machine it was possible to create an electrical charge. Galvani, an Italian physician working in the eighteenth century, experimented on nerve stimulation, mainly in frogs, using this electrostatic machine. Galvani used the electrostatic machine along with other equipment to help develop his theory that electricity ran through the nerves in animals’ bodies.

During these famous experiments Galvani would typically shock nerve fibres and muscles in frogs’ legs with static electricity and observe the effects. From this Galvani concluded that electricity must flow through animals’ bodies to cause a contraction along the muscles and termed this ‘animal electricity’.

Galvani died in 1798. About a century later, the electrostatic machine, along with about 30 other items of Galvani’s experimental equipment, ended up in the hands of Professor Giuseppe Fabbi of Bologna (Galvani’s hometown). Fabbi loaned a small selection of these objects to the Esposizione Voltiana in Como (Volta’s hometown) commemorating both Galvani and Volta (but mostly Volta) for their work in electricity.

The exhibition proved to be a massive success; however, disaster struck on the 8th June 1899. In a rather ironic twist the fusing of an electric wire caused a fire to break out, burning down the entire building, taking the Galvani andVolta material with it.

A postcard displaying the exhibition in Como—or what was left it after the fire! (Image courtesy of Associazione Iubilantes)

Fortunately for us, Fabbi, a patriotic son of Bologna, decided not to loan Galvani’s most important apparatus, like the electrostatic machine, to the exhibition in Como. Instead he kept it for his own collection which he later sold on, meaning the machine is still in existence today and is now part of the Science Museum’s Galvani collection. These objects are traces of the work conducted by one of the great pioneers of electrical experimentation, and will be featured in a temporary exhibition opening in September 2013 on the history of electrical stimulation of the nerves and brain.

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