The Voltaic Battery

Miss Porden

A Poem in Two Books

by Atticus Scriblerus Junr. a pupil of


Positive House — March 1815


Book the First

Invocation to Electricity — Volta superior to Newton — Connubial Love the origin of the Battery — Galvani — wife washing — prepares dinner himself — electric phenomena — Volta — discovery of the Battery — Its progress — Couronne des Tasses — Babington — Davy — Powers of the Battery — Chemical and Electric action — De Luc — His Electric Bells.

Book the Second

The Royal Institution — Davy — his lectures — decomposition of water — of the fixed alkalis — Sodium Potassium — not acknowledged as brothers by the old metals. Metals of the Earths — Ammonium — comparison with Sir H. Davy — The new Corrine — artificial diamonds. Professor Davy’s promise. A gleam of future triumphs of electric science — Bodies range themselves at the opposite poles — appropriate morality — Electromagus — His superiority to all Sages — Power of Electricity on the Mind. Spurzheim dessous. Lord Aircastle. His patronage of Electromagus — Conclusion.

Oh thou unseen yet all-pervading power
Source of the blast, the meteor and the shower
Like the proud master of some Eastern throne
Thy sway acknowledged, yet thyself unknown.
Oh! hear thy slave, who on his throne of glass
Woos thee bright Spirit, from the shining brass.
Whether thou lovest to hear the thunder roll
Or clothe in roseate light the burning pole,
To bid the downy fibres horrent stand,
Then touched collapse, but sting the venturous hand,
Or balls of cork in nice suspension held
Alternate move, attracted and repell’d,
Or placed beneath th’excited glass advance,
And fall and rise and urge the rapid dance.
Oh! wheresoe’er thou art, my song inspire
And breathe thy spirit o’er thy votary’s lyre
To nerve its strings, but not to fuse the wire.
Resplendent Power! to whom alike belong
The flash electric and the flame of song.
Oh smile on me, a genuine Child of Earth,
Of genius guiltless, even from my birth.
For Phoebus hid his light that fate morn
Owls sung and monkeys danced when I was born.
My Muse her charge with milk of asses fed
And poppy syrup lavished on my bread
Lest infant cries should rouse her from her bed.
Then let thine inspiration richly flow
Till all my soul with newborn ardour glow,
In brilliant sparkles, pungent, long, and free
To fire his soul who only writes of thee.
Thyself I sing, my daring strain inspire
And as thou lovest thy fame befriend my lyre,
Say in what clime, from what distinguished man
Thy favorite boast, thy powerful pile, began.
High favoured Frame! Let Britain vaunt no more
Her Newton, glory of the years of yore!
With foreign thieves his envied rights discuss
Or artful Leibnitz claim his calculus1
Let all the sages join the loud acclaim
And Newton’s light be lost in Volta’s fame!2

Connubial Love! whose wondrous influence can
Brute nature’s soften, and ennoble man!
Here grateful Science pays the tribute due —
Her vaunted battery owes its birth to you!

Galvani’s spouse, whose snowy fingers lave
His soil’d cravats in the ablucient wave,
Forgets how fast the precious moment steal,
Forgets her task to dress their noontide meal.
Her husband long had watch’d her as she stood,
Her red arms buried in the foaming flood,
Mark’d how she saw and strove with every stain,,
And rubb’d and soap’d, and soap’d and rubb’d again,
Mark’d how her cheeks with deeper crimson glow
And drops of toil stand trembling on her brow.
“Be mine,” he thought, “to ease thy household care,
Myself our frogs for dinner will prepare!”

The reptiles on a pewter platter laid
Their limbs he separates with his iron blade,
When lo! they start, convulsed with sudden life —
He drops the blade, and trembling calls his wife.
She comes, nor heeds attentive while she stands
The chilling blast that chaps her reeking hands
Surprised at each repeated touch to view,
The frogs,3 long dead, revive and leap anew.

’Twas hence that Volta’s great and active mind
Th’exciting metals variously combined,
Till now complete, the wondrous pile was seen
Of zinc and silver,4 with moist cloth between.
What rapture thrill’d his soul, as in the dark
He made the contact, saw the sudden spark
And felt the stroke, that mystic strange control
Which numbs the limbs but elevates the soul.

Nor let the sage in idiot wonder pause,
“So great a triumph from so slight a cause!”
What feeling mind can void of reverence pass
O’er Newton’s apple or his broken glass.5
Or think unaw’d on Franklin’s soaring kite
Its strings all horrent with electric light?
The rankest weed may precious balm infold
The touch of genius turns the dross to gold.

Seven is the golden number — seven are ours
Of wonders, worthies, and mechanic powers.
Seven were the Pleiades, the planets seven
Till Olbers, Harding, Piazzi, found eleven.
Sevan are the decades man enjoys at most,
And seven the triumphs science loves to boast.
The compass, type of constancy and hope,
The air pump next, and next the telescope.
Next electricity thy loved machine,
And next are Faust’s ingenious labour seen.6
Steam’s mighty engine! glory of our Isle,
And last, not least, the proud Voltaic Pile.

Descend Oh Muse! thy lofty spirit chain
And breathe a humbler, more didactic strain.
Tell with alternate strips of zinc and brass
Immersed in water, held by cups of glass,
How Volta formed his famed “Couronne des Tasses”
And how, while acid water flowed betwixt,
In wooden troughs the sodder’d plates were fix’d,
How Babington the guardian porcelain gave
And Davy raised the metals from the wave,
Alas! the Muse disdains the arid task,
In vain in Volta’s cherish’d name I ask,
She scorns the Battery’s progress to relate
But views its wonders in a perfect state.

When small the metal plates we always find
The spark is feeble, and th’effect confined,
At first th’effect increases with the size.
But to this rule a limit Fate supplies.
Large are plates we for conductors use
To burn the charcoal or the wire to fuse,
For non-conductors we prefer them small
The size is useless here, the number all.
From size intensity and strength are ours,
From number quantity, and chemic powers,
And oft a single pair of plates will urge
The golden tests7 more strongly to diverge
Than all that pile that from their stubborn earth
First called the wondering metals into birth.

Between the plates when nitric acid plays
Th’effect is stronger, but it soon decays.
Bright is the spark, and long the glowing wire
But waning light betrays the fading fire.
With fainter glow when water flows between
For months or years th’unchanging spark is seen.

Twice twenty plates, two feet by one, on fire,
Will keep twelve inches of thick iron wire.
Yet not from water bid one bubble rise
Or give one grain of metal to our eyes,
While with two thousand, inches four by four,
The metals shine, the gaseous volumes soar,
Yet will its power th’Electrometer spurn
And not one inch of wire or carbon burn.

’Tis thus — in Volta’s mighty pile we find,
Electric force and chemic power combined8
But, like a pair of well adjusted scales,
Whene’er we heighten one, the other fails.
As in the spectrum of divided light
The vermil rays superior heat excite,
Yet there is nought of chemic power confessed,
And e’en metallic oxides bear the test,
But coldly where the violet lustre plays
Their changing hues attest the chemic rays.
When powerful acids chemic force excite
And yellow fumes perplex the gazer’s sight,
And trembling at his task, his lungs inhale
The piercing vapours of the poison’d gale
The chemistry in all her might descends
And o’er the awful pile triumphant bends,
While electricity with downcast eyes
Soars on the tawny vapours as they rise,
Yet smiles to see the plates so bright and clear
In dirty oxides veil their glittering sheen
And in her rival’s boasted pride of sway
Her sceptre broken, and her strength decay.
Like Semele, with mad ambition fired
Who perish’d in the glory she desired,
Or in the socket, as the expiring light
Emits a brighter flash, and sinks in night.

When electricity triumphant tells
The virtues of De Luc’s electric bells,
Fair chemistry, who stands neglected by
Feels her lost sway, and listens with a sigh
Between his columns hears how true to time
Fall the soft notes of his perpetual chime
Despairing sees the plates so pure and bright
And drops a tear to mar their silver light.9

Book the Second

All hail, Minerva! hail thy noble fane10
May science bless, and time confirm thy reign,
May future Davys fill thy chemic chair
Dear to the great, the wealthy, and the fair.
’Twas thine, illustrious knight! ’twas thine to raise
The work of Volta to immortal praise,
And Truth must still when most she lauds thy name
Own Volta’s pile the base of Davy’s fame.

Oft, Fashion! have I seen thy votaries throng
To hear the truths of science from his tongue,
The groaning benches fill, the staircase grace
For e’en that seat was then an envied place,
And when his entrance joy’d the longing crowd
What thunders shook the Circus, as he bowed
And when the ceiling lower’d, in deepest gloom
For nice experiment, involved the room,
And by th’electric glare, he seem’d to stand
Like some magician with his elvish band.
(For by that livid and unearthly light
Each dark assistant look’d an evil sprite,
And the surrounding nymphs, their roses fled,
Seem’d the pale spectres of the summon’d dead;)
In oxygen when burnt the iron wire,
Or charcoal fell in scintillating fire,
Or when his brilliant gases might induce
Each nymph a vest of iodine11 to choose
Or when some metaphor announced his close
How loud and long the rapturous plaudits rose.

How often have I seen with eager eyes
The gas from decompounded water rise,
The oxygen in gentle stream aspire
Its course determined to the vitreous wire,
The hydrogen in ampler volumes roll,
And see with energy the minor pole.12

But his what transport in that happy hour
When the fixed13 alkalis confessed his power
Besieged in vain, attacked in many a field,
Victorious o’er a thousand foes, they yield!
Oh! what new raptures filled his mind, to view
The grains of newborn metal as they grew,
Yet while they swelled in lustre pure and bright
A cloud of oxide hide their silvery light,
Mark on the crowd the Sage enraptured turns
And cries, “I see it! Lo it burns! It burns!”

Sodium, potassium, long they vainly claim,
The metals scarcely yield a brother’s name14
Proud of their stubborn frames, unequalled weight
Their heat-defying powers and radiant light.
They scorn the strangers who assert their right
Whose plastic frames the moulding hand obey,
Whose transient lustre scarcely hears the day,
Who thrown on water, burn in floating fire,
Or, pressed on ice, in sudden flames expire.15

Ye antient worthies, pride’s false voice beware,
Your rivals sleep in earth and float on air!
Beneath the electric pile, in bright array
See the young warriors rising into day!
See o’er their forms in beamy splendour dressed
Etherial naptha16 spreads her guardian vest!
Their names expressive of their parent earth,
Four shining strangers boast their kindred birth.
And who is he, o’er whom a phantom fair
Spreads her light pinions with maternal care.
He shakes his spear with more than mortal grace
Metallic offspring17 of etherial race.
Ah, young ammonium! beauty’s wiles beware
For thee an airy siren spreads the snare.
See in her arms the fainting hero lies,
From life and light she bears th’expiring prize.

E’en thus, alas! the Sage was borne away
From the full light of science’s brightest day
Not only round each mute attentive fair
Mephitic chlorine floated on the air,
The tainted gales love’s softer poison bear!
Another Circe lights the fatal flame,
And love and knighthood crop the buds of fame.
Yes! Davy’s magic lips had charms to win
From ball or theatre the New Corinne18
Ere on St Paul’s, the earliest sunbeam fell
True to her chemic studies rose the Belle,19
And when for fashion’s nightly round arrayed
Her sable locks their diamond wreath displayed
The happy Institution still had power
To claim the weekly tribute of an hour.
But by her eyes’ soft fascination caught,
She held entranced, the envied teacher fought,
Oft felt he, while he held th’exited wire
A spark more rapid than th’electric fire,
And when he vow’d, “Should carbon own his power
And science round him new-made diamonds shower
The earliest triumphs of his art to bear
A grateful tribute to each studious fair,
Yet that those eyes which shone so oft on him
Must surely make the brightest diamonds dim.”20
Oh then! now truly by his mien was shown,
He spoke to all, but only thought of one!

But oh! dread source of immaterial light,
What nameless splendours burst upon my sight;
What fierce volcanoes rage, what meteors glare,21
What sounds, what sights, around, in earth, in air!
My spirit faints before the dazzling ray —
In mercy spare th’unutterable day.
Enough for me with weak and trembling string
The present triumphs of thy power to sing.
Let happier bards thy future fame relate,
And see the glories of thy heavenly state,
But on mine eyes, oh let thy favour stream,
A mild, a steady, but a softened beam.
Or I, like Milton with excess of light
May sink o’erpowered, and droop in endless night.

Close by the pile, behold on either hand
In hostile guise a numerous army stand22
In vain her succour powerful friendship lends
Or chemistry the olive branch extends.
Thro’ all temptations on they freely roll
True as the needle to their favourite pole.

Oh Man! inconstant, treacherous, insincere
Oh! blush to see the bright example here!
Blush deep, to think how oft thy race have sold
Their truth, for ease, for pleasure, or for gold!
What man while wandering in the desert sees
The crystal fountain sparkling thro’ the trees,
Nor leaves his path to seek the sheltered spot
His trust neglected, and his haste forgot?
Or faint and weary, who with careless eye
Will pass untouched, the tempting banquet by.
Yet alkalis thro’ winning acids pass,
Unmixed, unaltered, to th’appointed glass,
And while the acids own electric reign,
Their long loved alkalis attract in vain!23
Oh electricity, thy power is great,
When senseless matter thus can own thy state
But greater were thy glory, couldst thou bind
To truth and honour man’s deceitful mind!
Enough the lyre has rung with Davy’s fame,
Electric science boasts a nobler name!
The glory of our town, our isle, our age.
The poet’s friend, the wonder-working Sage.
Electromagus, he who first defined,
The power electric o’er the human mind.24
The works of genius meaner bards may tell,
Long on her antient favourites fame may dwell,
But still the purer, nobler praise his lot,
Who gives the flame, where Nature gave it not.
Who bids its fervor frozen age inspire,
Or mid the fog of dullness lights the fire —
No more shall bards for inspiration run
To soft Vaucluse or older Helicon,
No more from Bacchus shall the poet’s mind
And transient and insidious vigour find,
Or drink it, like the insect of an hour,
Or Persian genie, from some fragrant flower,
Or seek the vulgar streams of ale or beer,
A purer fount of sacred song is here!

E’en those where Spurzheim’s practised touch in vain
Would seek a single organ thro’ their brain,
On whom their flattered, narrow skulls at once
Impose the dread opprobrious name of Dunce;
Let such but come, but touch th’electric wire
And thro’ their soul quick darts th’unwonted fire.
Yes! let this happy age, no longer blind,
Own electricity the Queen of Mind,
This cranioscopic, cerviologic sage
Must lower his standard to Electromage,
And what of good his system offers, own,
He owes that good to her, and her alone.

Nor be, O Aircastle! unsung thy name
Who raised the Sage to honour and to fame,
See pouring down the steep descent of time
Rich with a thousand rills, the stream of rhyme
With electricity’s augmented force
No longer narrow bounds confine its course.
The widening current shall for age endure
Swift as a torrent, as a fountain pure,
And bear upon its waves, to endless fame
Electromagus and his Patron’s Name.


  1. The differential calculus, or theory of fluxions, discovered by Newton, but afterwards claimed by Leibnitz, who if he was not indebted to Newton’s observations, was at least posterior in discovery. 

  2. What heresy! does Volta excel Newton? Yes! as a quack medicine excels the prescription of a physician. But Volta was no quack. No! but Galvani was. No poet but places his theme above all others if it be but an onion. 

  3. Two metals are necessary to render this effect striking, tho’ one will produce it in a small degree. This discovery was the origin of Galvinism. 

  4. Zinc and silver, or zinc and charcoal form the most powerful arrangement but zinc and copper is generally preferred, as being less expensive than the former, more durable than the latter, and not much inferior in power. The form of the pile is now generally discontinued, and that of the trough or battery adopted. 

  5. An apple which fell on the head of Newton, while sleeping in his orchard, is said to have led to the development of the laws of gravity, and the accidental observation of the brilliant colours in a piece of broken glass, to his analysis of light. It is well known that Dr Franklin first established the identity of lightning and electricity, by means of a schoolboy’s kite. 

  6. The printing machine. 

  7. The gold leaves of the electrometer. 

  8. The phenomena of attraction and repulsion, the brilliant light, the deflagration of metals, and that peculiar numbing sensation which can rather be felt than described, are owing to the electricity, and are much more powerfully displayed in a few alternations of large plates than in a great number of small ones. While the decomposition of bodies, and the violent heat produced by a battery consisting of a great number of small plates are the effects of its chemical power. Large plates are necessary for operating on conductors, where chemical power is required, the size is immaterial, and the number only of importance. From recent experiment it appears however that electric power does not increase uniformly with the size of the plates, nor chemical force with their number. 

  9. The large battery at the Royal Institution, consisting of 4,000 plates of four inches diameter, when the troughs are filled with a strong acid solutions, and it is in high power for chemical decomposition, produces even less electrical effect, than a battery of twenty plates charged with water, or even the contact and separation of a single pair; on the contrary in the Voltaic columns of M. de Luc, the effect is entirely electrical. In the former instance, the fumes which arise from the chemical action of the acid on the metals, destroys the insulation, and consequently the electrical effect. In the Voltaic column, on the other hand, the electrical effects are perfect, as long only as the whole apparatus is kept dry, that is, as long as there is no chemical action on the metals. A sunbeam is composed of three parts: light, heat, and some invisible rays producing chemical effects, possibly by some electrical actions. When the ray is divided by the prism, the heat is found to be greater in the red rays, and in certain invisible rays beyond them, but here no chemical effects are observable, while on the contrary, in the violet rays, and in certain invisible rays beyond the coloured spectrum, little heat is detected, and the chemical effects are strong. In the red rays metallic oxides are unaltered, but they soon tarnish in the violet lights or the invisible rays beyond. 

  10. The Royal Institution. 

  11. Iodine, so called from Ion, a violet. “A substance producing a violet coloured gas when heated.” 

  12. Water consists of one volume of oxygen combined with two of hydrogen. In its decomposition the oxygen, being negative, is evolved at the positive pole, and the hydrogen, being positive, at the negative. 

  13. The alkalis potash and soda obtained their name of fixed, not more in opposition to ammonia, the volatile alkali, than from their having resisted every effort to decompose them, till Professor Davy thought of applying to them the energies of Voltaic electricity, and developed their metallic bases. The metal was formed in small globules which either burned at the moment of their production, or were reabsorbed in oxygen. 

  14. The French chemists long denied the name of metals to sodium and potassium, which they called Hydrureto. The characteristics which distinguish them can scarcely be more concisely given than in the text. 

  15. The new metals unite so greedily with oxygen, that they inflame in combination. Potassium is lighter than water, and flames as it floats. Sodium is rather heavier, and burns at the bottom. 

  16. The metals of the earths and alkalis can only be preserved by covering them with naptha, a spirit produced by the distillation of aether, and the lightest of all known fluids. 

  17. Ammonia, the volatile alkali, is produced by the union of two gases, hydrogen and nitrogen. Ammonium is the metallic basis of ammonia. Either hydrogen or nitrogen must therefore be compound bodies, most probably nitrogen. Ammonium has hitherto been procured in such small quantities, and so minute a portion of oxygen is sufficient to regenerate the alkali, that it has been found impossible to keep it. 

  18. The fair lady who afterwards so fully appreciated the merits of Davy, was very generally known by the appellation of the “New Corinne”, though she assured her friends that notwithstanding the universal supposition, and her great intimacy with Mme. De Stael at the time, she really was not the Corinne of that illustrious writer. 

  19. Mrs Apreece used to receive chemical lessons from Professor Davy in her dressing room at 6 o’clock in the morning. 

  20. Feb. 19th 1810 At an evening lecture Professor Davy made this promise. 

  21. Professor Davy supposes the metals of the earths to be instrumental in the eruptions of volcanoes and the combustion of meteoric stones. 

  22. All known bodies are capable of being resolved into two great classes, those naturally pos. which seek by the well known electrical law of reciprocal attraction and repulsion the neg. end of the battery, and those bodies naturally neg. which arrange themselves round the pos. wire. 

  23. The memorable experiment is well known, in which by the force of electrical attraction, Professor Davy neutralized chemical affinity, when the acids placed at the positive pole passed thro’ a stratum of alkali to the negative, and the alkalis proceeded thro’ the acid to the positive, without combination. 

  24. Electromagus: The discourse of the important fact on which this poem is founded, that electricity is the source of all poetical inspiration, a discourse worthy to be recorded in the letters of gold. May the Voltaic battery, the source of all his fire; May his kind instructor and benefactor, Electromagus; May that instructor’s munificent friend and patron, Lord Aircastle, receive this humble tribute from the gratitude of their most devoted pupil, Atticus Scriblerus Junior.