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Leapin’ Lexical Inventions! (minicast)

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Martha explains how experiments with dead frogs and live wires led to the invention of the battery, and inspired a couple of familiar English words.

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I had to change the batteries in my flashlight the other day, and that makes think, as it always does, of Luigi Galvani. No, really, it does. Let me explain: Galvani was an 18th-century Italian physician and physicist whose experiments accidentally paved the way for modern batteries.

The focus of his research? Galvani experimented with dead frogs and live wires. In 1791, he published a paper describing how he’d touched a dead frog’s leg with one wire, and touched another wire to both the frog and the first wire. When the second wire made contact, the lifeless body jerked. Galvani believed these convulsions were the result of “animal electricity,” a mysterious substance secreted by the body. What Galvani failed to grasp was that by touching wires made of two different metals to the frog—and to each other—he’d simply created a closed circuit.

At the time, Galvani’s report was nothing short of astonishing. As one of his contemporaries wrote in a letter: “Now here the experiments are also repeated in ladies’ salons, and they furnish a good spectacle to all.” A generation later, Mary Shelley would write her novel Frankenstein, and specifically credit Galvani’s experiments as an inspiration.

But his work also inspired further research by another Italian scientist, one who didn’t buy the idea of “animal electricity.” His name was Alessandro Volta. He suspected that the frog’s body didn’t secrete electricity, it conducted it. Soon Volta was stacking pieces of zinc and silver and, instead of animal tissue, cardboard soaked in brine. The electrifying result was the first “voltaic pile,” forerunner of the batteries we use today.

As you may have guessed, Volta’s name lives on in our word for that unit of electrical measurement, the volt. Despite his scientific mistake, Galvani achieved a measure of linguistic immortality as well. Today you’ll find his name inside a word that means to “jolt” or “jump-start”: galvanize.

Incidentally, if you’re having a hard time picturing Galvani’s many experiments, there are lots of illustrations on the Web, including here and here.

Has a question about language sparked your curiosity? Email us at words@waywordradio.org.

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