Volta and Inflammable Airs
Today’s Google doodle honoring the 270th birthday of Alessandro Volta prompted us to explore works by Volta in two of our outstanding history of science collections, the Cole Collection of Chemistry and the Duveen Alchemy and Chemistry Collection.
Among our holdings are two 18th-century editions of Volta’s letters on “inflammable airs from marshes,” the first in Italian (published in Milan in 1777) and a French translation (published in Strasbourg the following year).
In these letters, Volta’s first studies in pneumatics, he described his investigations of inflammable gases, primarily methane, which he had discovered late the previous year in Lago Maggiore. Volta’s interest in this topic was piqued by the work of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, Marsilio Landriani, and Felice Fontana, among others.
Our two versions (1777 and 1778) of Volta’s letters on inflammable gases deployed markedly different approaches to illustrating the phenomena and experimental apparatus in question. The original version, in Italian, featured engravings both decorative and informative mixed with letterpress; the French translation took a simpler tack, ornamenting the text with only a few decorative woodcuts.
Engravings in the Italian original illustrated experimental apparatus and instruments for measuring pneumatic phenomena: