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Volta and Inflammable Airs

February 18, 2015

alessandro-voltas-270th-birthday-5398960088809472-hpToday’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:

The publisher of the French translation instead gathered substantive illustrations together on a single engraved plate, a conventional practice for scientific publications of the period and, one assumes, less expensive. Because it could be viewed at the same time as any page of the text, such a plate is now called a throwout.
For more information on Volta and the broad range of his interests and accomplishments, see, for example, the biography Volta: Science and culture in the Age of Enlightenment by Giuliano Pancaldi. Articles in Nuova Voltiana: Studies on Volta and his times  address many aspects of Volta’s scientific work; they include studies of pneumatic chemistry and respirability by such scholars as Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Marco Beretta.
By the way, in a piece in today’s Guardian, “A welcome but misleading Google doodle,” Charlotte Connelly, a Ph.D. student at Cambridge, took some issue with historical liberties taken by artist Mark Holmes in his design of today’s Google doodle.