Big Science at the Royal Institution

Frames 14 and 15

In the early 19th century, the "big science" at the Royal Institution was centered on the use of electricity to decompose compounds into their constituent elements. Often times, this electrolysis led to the finding of previously unobserved elements, many of which are naturally reactive. Frame 15 shows a cartoon of a public demonstration of N2O at the Royal Institution at London. Among the presenters, we see Humphry Davy holding the bellows. He will later head the Royal Institution as well as pioneer the use of these electrical processes in chemistry.

Frame 16

Count Alessandro Volta invented the first functional battery. He realized that if you take a copper plate and place it against a zinc plate with a thin layer of conductive material between them, you could generate a small potential (1.1 V). By placing more and more of these pairs of Cu-Zn plates against each other, you could greatly increase the output of this battery (known as the 'Voltaic Pile' in 1799). Davy assembled a number of these piles- one at 26 V, 110V, and 165V. The Berzelius' version of one of these piles is pictured. Additionally, by the properties of electricity, you can attach these batteries in series to further increase the overall output of your potential source. Davhy, following this principle, placed his piles in series to create a larger 301V battery. Davy reasoned that the electrical potentials generated by these batteries could decompose compounds into their constituent compounds through the process of electrolysis and proceeded to experiment with such concepts.

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