Alessandro Guisseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (1745-1827), after whom the words volt and voltage were named, was born in Como, Italy, one of nine children of a Jesuit priest who had left the order to marry.
By the time Alessandro was sixteen, he had mastered many languages and then went on to invent several electrostatic devices. He was invited, in 1778, to become a professor of physics at the University of Pavia.
Volta became internationally famous because of his controversy with Luigi Galvani over the source of electricity. After repeating Galvani’s experiment, Volta disagreed with Galvani’s theory and became a rallying point for those opposed to it. His prominence was such that he was elected to England’s Royal Society and was the first foreigner to receive the Royal Society’s Copley Medal.
Volta invented or improved a number of electrical devices, such as the electrophorus, which transfers electric charges to other objects. He discovered the electric decomposition of water and developed a theory of current electricity in physics. His inventions include the electrical condenser and the voltaic pile, which became the prototype of the dry-cell battery.
Volta received many honors during his long life. Statues were made of him, and kings and the heads of state requested his presence. The prestigious National Institute of France invited him to lecture there, at which time he was additionally honored by the presence of Napoleon, who bestowed on Volta the title of count. Legend has it that when Napoleon was leaving the hall, he noticed a sign reading «Au Grand Voltaire» and proceeded to cross out the last three letters.