Famous Discoveries Made by the Italians
21 JUL 2017
While Italy is well-known for its contributions to art, music and government, it was also home to a number of scientific discoveries. From identifying celestial bodies and movements to inventing and expanding upon radio communication, Italian discoveries and inventions have had a profound impact on the scientific community -- and on society at large.
The College of Optometrists notes that while a number of individuals contributed to the development of spectacles, the work of Venetian glass workers in perfecting quartz lens curvature was fundamental to early efforts. In 1305, a Dominican Friar from Pisa named Fra Giordano da Rivalto gave a sermon praising human ingenuity. He claimed to have met the man who invented spectacles and marveled at their ability to improve vision. His contemporary, Fra Alessandro Della Spina, claimed in 1313 to have met a man who invented spectacles, but whether he was referring to the same man as Rivalto is unclear.
While the precise history is difficult to know, art and industry indicate that literate Italians wore spectacles and worked to improve the technology. Tommaso da Modena made the first painting of a man wearing spectacles in 1352, indicating that he was familiar with their use. Later, at the turn of the 14th century, Murano glass makers began producing convex lenses, which may be used to treat myopia.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) revolutionized scientific thinking, making a number of discoveries that were controversial during his life and fundamental to scientific progress in the centuries that followed. Galileo advocated for a mathematical approach to physics, describing early in his career the mathematical basis for ballistics and in his "Principle of Inertia," a precursor for Newton's First Law of Motion. The Stanford Solar Center notes that Galileo's version of basic relativity "formed the basis for Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity."
While he is best known for confirming heliocentrism, or sun-centered solar system, Galileo's intensive study of the sky went even further. After perfecting the telescope, he observed Jupiter's moons, sun spots, Saturn's rings, Neptune and the craters that pockmark the moon's surface. Though the Catholic Church imprisoned him for publishing his findings, Galileo's studies and inventions, which include the thermometer, impact scientific research to this day.
The origin of batteries lies in an experiment conducted by Luigi Galvani in 1781. When dissecting a frog, Galvani applied a brass hook and a steel scalpel, causing the frog's leg to twitch. He soon published a paper proposing that electricity originated within the frog's tissues. His contemporary, Alessandro Volta, disagreed, hypothesizing instead that the frog's leg acted merely as an indicator.
While both scientists were partially right, in that metal conducts electricity and electricity can stimulate muscle contractions, Volta took his research a step further. According to Florida State University, he eventually developed the voltaic pile, "a series of discs of zinc and copper (later other metals were used) arranged vertically and separated by pieces of cloth or cardboard soaked in an acid or salt solution." The device, known as the "voltaic pile," generated an electrical current and is a precursor to modern batteries. In the aftermath of his success, Volta honored his rival Galvani by naming chemical direct current electricity "galvanism."
Guglielmo Marconi developed a device capable of transmitting wireless signals one and a half miles in 1895. The next year, he patented his device and improved it to the point that he was able to transmit a signal over 12 miles by 1897. Within the next two years, he set up wireless communications between Britain and France, establishing permanent wireless telegraph stations along the coast.
For his work in developing this new means of communication, Marconi received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909, sharing it with his contemporary, German scientist Karl Braun. During his service as an officer in World War I, Marconi further perfected long-distance communication, enabling England and Canada to communicate via radio waves by 1926. His studies led to the understanding of Marconi's Law, or the relationship between antennae height and radio signaling capacity.