Article ID: CBB119095319

Dead or “undead”? The curious and untidy history of Volta’s concept of “contact potential” (2021)


Much of the long controversy concerning the workings of electric batteries revolved around the concept of the contact potential (especially between different types of metals), originated by Alessandro Volta in the late eighteenth century. Although Volta’s original theory of batteries has been thoroughly rejected and most discussions in today’s electrochemistry hardly ever mention the contact potential, the concept has made repeated comebacks through the years, and has by no means completely disappeared. In this paper, I describe four salient foci of its revivals: dry piles, thermocouples, quadrant electrometers, and vacuum phenomena. I also show how the contact potential has maintained its presence in some cogent modern scientific literature. Why has the death of the Voltaic contact potential been such an untidy affair? I suggest that this is because the concept has displayed significant meaning and utility in various experimental and theoretical contexts, but has never been successfully given a simple, unified account. Considering that situation, I also suggest that it would make sense to preserve and develop it as a multifarious concept.

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Authors & Contributors
Matson, Kelsey
Krešimir Molčanov
Franco Bagnoli
D. M. Behrman
Heth, Christopher L.
Manuela Davis
Bulletin for the History of Chemistry
Substantia: An International Journal of the History of Chemistry
American Journal of Physics
Revue d'Histoire des Sciences
Kwartalnik Historii Nauki i Techniki
Indian Journal of History of Science
University of Washington Press
Franz Steiner Verlag
Electricity; magnetism
Explanation; hypotheses; theories
Volta, Alessandro
Pfaff, Christoph Heinrich
Onsager, Lars
Leclanché, Georges Lionel
Langevin, Paul
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, early
20th century
Early modern
United Kingdom
Yellowstone River Valley
Cracow (Poland)
United States
Royal Institution of Great Britain
University of Pennsylvania
Universität Freiburg
British Association for the Advancement of Science
Freie Universität Berlin

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