The Enlightenment and the Electric Battery

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The Enlightenment and the Electric Battery

This paper is a discussion of the role played by the ideals of the Enlightenment in the invention and assessment of artifacts like the electric battery. The first electric battery was built in 1799 by Alessandro Volta, who was both a natural philosopher and an artisan-like inventor of intriguing machines. I will show that the story of Volta and the battery contains three plots, each characterized by its own pace and logic. One is the story of natural philosophy, a second is the story of artifacts like the battery, and the third is the story of the loose, long-term values used to assess achievement and reward within and outside expert communities. An analysis of the three plots reveals that late eighteenth-century natural philosophers, despite their frequent celebration of 'useful knowledge,' were not fully prepared to accept the philosophical dignity of artifacts stemming from laboratory practice. Their hesitation was the consequence of a hierarchy of ranks and ascribed competence that was well established within the expert community. In order to make artifacts stemming from laboratory practice fully acceptable within the domain of natural philosophy, some important changes had yet to occur. Still, the case overwhelmingly shows that artifacts rightly belong to the long and varied list of items that make up the legacy of the Enlightenment.

The first electric battery was built towards the end of 1799 by a man who was both a natural philosopher - a member of the Republic of Letters of the late Enlightenment - and an artisan-like inventor of intriguing machines. The present paper is a discussion of the role played by Enlightenment ideals in the introduction and assessment of artifacts ...

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...blic scene the rewards that some of his peers refused to grant him within the expert community of natural philosophers. The same loose set of values allowed patrons like Napoleon to exploit to their advantage on the European scene the achievements of figures like Volta and instruments like the battery.

Finally (fourth transparency again), the loose set of values associated with the notions of achievement and reward allowed the Voltaic battery - this little understood artifact for which in 1800 nobody could predict the bright future of - to enjoy center-stage in a painting like this. Everyone was thus reassured - as I think we still are - of the worth of an inconspicuous, "philosophical" artifact like the battery. A worth that should induce us to include the battery in the long and varied list of valuable items rightly belonging to the legacy of the Enlightenment.

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