Italian Historical Society of America


  Scientists and Inventors

 At the core of all technological advancement in any society is rooted in its scientists and inventors. There are many of Italian heritage who have proven to be significant in their contribution to the science and technology of the West. Here is a sampling of them.

Biographies presented in this page: 
  Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)
  Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
  Luigi Galvani (1737-1798)
  Antonio Meucci (1808-1889)
  Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937)
  Alessandro Volta (1745-1827)


  Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)

 Recognized as one of the twentieth century's great scientists, and with a name that every physics student is aware of, Fermi received the Noble Prize in physics in 1938 for discovering new radioactive elements and the nuclear reactions caused by slow neutrons. Fermi's work heralded the age of nuclear power that now provides energy, and used in medical treatments, and agricultural and industrial applications.
 
With a natural inclination toward physics, at 27, Fermi became a professor in the field. His applications in experimentation and theoretical physics led him to become the first to split an atom. Arriving in America after he received the Nobel Prize, he continued his research in nuclear power generation, first at Columbia University in New York then at the University of Chicago. He became a professor at the Institute of Nuclear Studies, now named the Enrico Fermi Institute, and the element fermium is named after him. Fermi was involved in The Manhattan Project during World War II.

 In 1956, President Eisenhower established the Enrico Fermi Presidential Award in honor of the Nobel Prize recipient. The National Accelerator Laboratory, established by the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1967 was renamed Fermilab in 1974. In 1976, Fermi was inducted to the Inventors Hall of Fame, and in 2001, a United States postage stamp was issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Fermi's birth.
Written by Janice Mancuso

Here are some other relevant websites:

Enrico Fermi Biography
Enrico Fermi Accomplishments
National Inventors Hall of Fame
The Nobel Prize - Enrico Fermi
Voices of the Manhattan Project
Manhattan Project Spotlight: Enrico Fermi

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  Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)


Most known for his scientific contributions and often referred to as the “father of modern science” and the “father of modern physics,” Galileo changed the way we view the world. His contributions are considerable; they include his study and support of the Copernican theory (the planets revolve around the sun), studies in accelerated motion, perfecting the telescope, and astronomical findings. Galileo’s father was a professional musician who applied his concepts of musical theory to practical knowledge and procedure. It’s noted that Galileo assisted his father with experiments and obtained the same technique of applying concept to practice. Born in Pisa (region of Tuscany), in his childhood, Galileo studied at a monastery and considered joining, but – at his father’s urging – studied medicine, then developed an interest in mathematics.
Galileo started to teach mathematics as a private tutor in 1585, and in 1589, he was lecturing in mathematics at the University of Pisa. In 1592, he was appointed Chair of Mathematics at the University of Padua, where he lectured on geometry and astronomy. During his 18 years there he continued his studies in mechanics, astrology, and philosophy; published instruction manuals for his students; experimented with motion, designed instruments, and published his observations; and worked on improving the telescope; and begins to publicize his views on Copernicanism.


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In 1610, Galileo was appointed Chief Mathematician of the University of Pisa, and Cosimo II (de’ Medici), Grand Duke of Tuscany, offered him a court position of Philosopher and Mathematician. In the following years, Galileo’s support of Copernicanism grew, and in 1613, his observations of sunspots and letters of his findings further supported his theories. His public view that the planets revolve around the sun– which is opposite the belief of the Roman Catholic Church – and a book he published which was thought to mock the Pope caused the church to label him a heretic, and in 1633, he was placed under house arrest. Galileo continued to write and publish his work, which includes Discourse on Two New Sciences, and by 1638 he had lost vision in both eyes (some attribute this to looking directly at the sun). He died in 1642, and in 1992, Pope John Paul II announced regret in the way the Church approached the views of Galileo.
Written by Janice Mancuso

Here are some other relevant websites

The Galileo Project
Galileo Galilei: The Nature of Matter
Galileo's Astronomical Discoveries

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  Luigi Galvani (1737-1798)


In his fields as a physician and a physicist, Galvani’s research led to electrophysiology – the relationship of electric activity and biology. Born in Bologna (region of Emilia-Romagna), Galvani received two advanced degrees from the University of Bologna, Medicine and Philosophy. Some sources cite that his father was a doctor, and Galvani followed his footsteps; others claim that Galvani’s first interest was theology, but his parents convinced him to study medicine. By his mid-twenties he lectured in Medicine at the University, and he became president of the Academy of Sciences of Bologna in 1772. As a lecturer in anatomy, Galvani conducted experiments on deceased animals and frogs; and in one experiment his assistant – standing close to an electrical machine – accidentally touched his scalpel to a nerve in the legs of a dissected frog, and the legs twitched. Galvani began researching what he named “animal electricity,” the discovery of electricity moving through cells in the tissue, which became the precursor to neurophysiology and neurology. Later, Alessandro Volta would use the term “galvanism” to describe the process.

Galvani spent the next 10 years researching the effects of external electricity on animal tissue, and in 1791, published a paper on animal electricity. Two years later he published another paper defending his work. When Napoleon created the Cisalpine Republic in 1797, Bologna was included. Galvani refused to pledge an oath to the new Republic and he was forced to resign from the University. He died the following year.
Luigi Galvani
The Legacy of Galvani and Volta in contemporary science
Written by Janice Mancuso

Here are some other relevant websites:
Luigi Galvani: Bioelectrogenesis

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  Antonio Meucci (1808-1889)


Inventor of the Telephone
An invention none of us could live without, a tool of modern communications so basic that many of today's business and social activities would be inconceivable in its absence, the telephone, is at the center of a series of events so strange as to amount to a "whodunit." Most of us were brought up on the story of Alexander Graham Bell, the romantic figure of an inventor with dash and charm. Some of these favorable impressions must have come from the famous, if apocryphal, "Come here Watson, I want you" legend of the invention of the device, a tradition augmented by the movie version of the tale, in which actor Don Amiche became more or less permanently attached to the persona of Bell. But it seems that history must be rewritten if justice is to be done to an immigrant from Florence, Italy: Antonio Meucci, who invented the telephone in 1849 and filed his first patent caveat (notice of intention to take out a patent) in 1871, setting into motion a series of mysterious events and injustices which would be incredible were they not so well documented. Meucci was an enigmatic character, a man unable to overcome his own lack of managerial and entrepreneurial talent, a man tormented by his inability to communicate in any language other than Italian. The tragic events of his personal and professional life, his accomplishments and his association with the great Italian patriot, Garibaldi, should be legendary in themselves but, curiously, the man and his story are practically unknown today. Antonio Meucci was born in San Frediano, near Florence, in April 1808. He studied design and mechanical engineering at Florence's Academy of Fine Arts and then worked in the Teatro della Pergola and various other theaters as a stage technician until 1835, when he accepted a job as scenic designer and stage technician at the Teatro Tacon in Havana, Cuba.

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Absolutely fascinated by scientific research of any kind, Meucci read every scientific tract he could get his hands on, and spent all his spare time in Havana on research, inventing a new method of galvanizing metals which he applied to military equipment for the Cuban government; at the same time, he continued his work in the theater and pursued his endless experiments.One these touched off a series of fateful events. Meucci had developed a method of using electric shocks to treat illness which had become quite popular in Havana. One day, while preparing to administer a treatment to a friend, Meucci heard an exclamation of the friend, who was in the next room, over the piece of copper wire running between them. The inventor realized immediately that he held in his hand something much more important than any other discovery he had ever made, and he spent the next ten years bringing the principle to a practical stage. The following ten years were to be spent perfecting the original device and trying to promote its commercialization.


With this goal, he left Cuba for New York in 1850, settling in the Clifton section of Staten Island, a few miles from New York City. Here, in addition to his problems of a strictly financial nature, Meucci realized that he could not communicate adequately in English, having relied on the similarities of Italian and Spanish during his Cuban residence. Furthermore, in Staten Island, he found himself surrounded by Italian political refugees; Giuseppe Garibaldi, when exiled from Italy, spent his period of United States residency in Meucci's house. The scientist tried to help his Italian friends by devising any number of industrial projects using new or improved manufacturing methods for such diverse products as beer, candles, pianos and paper. But he knew nothing of management, and even those initiatives which succeeded were to have their profits eaten up by unscrupulous or inept managers or by the refugees themselves, who spent more time in political discussion than they did in active work. Meanwhile, Meucci continued to dedicate his time to perfecting the telephone. In 1855, when his wife became partially paralyzed, Meucci set up a telephone system which joined several rooms of his house with his workshop in another building nearby, the first such installation anywhere. In 1860, when the instrument had become practical, Meucci organized a demonstration to attract financial backing in which a singer's voice was clearly heard by spectators a considerable distance away. A description of the apparatus was soon published in one of New York's Italian newspapers and the report together with a model of the invention were taken to Italy by a certain Signor Bendelari with the goal of arranging production there; nothing came of this trip, nor of the many promises of financial support which had been forthcoming after the demonstration.

The years which followed brought increasing poverty to an embittered and discouraged Meucci, who nonetheless continued to produce a series of new inventions. His precarious financial situation, however, often constrained him to sell the rights to his inventions, and still left him without the wherewithal to take out final patents on the telephone.

A dramatic event, in which Meucci was severely burned in the explosion of the steamship Westfield returning from New York, brought things to an even more tragic state. While Meucci lay in hospital, miraculously alive after the disaster, his wife sold many of his working models (including the telephone prototype) and other materials to a secondhand dealer for six dollars. When Meucci sought to buy these precious objects back, he was told that they had been resold to an "unknown young man" whose identity remains a mystery to this day.

Crushed, but not beaten, Meucci worked night and day to reconstruct his invention and to produce new designs and specifications, clearly apprehensive that someone could steal the device before he could have it patented. Unable to raise the sum for a definitive patent ($250, considerable in those days), he took recourse in the caveat or notice of intent, which was registered on December 28, 1871 and renewed in 1872 and 1873 but, fatefully, not thereafter.

Immediately after he received certification of the caveat, Meucci tried again to demonstrate the enormous potential of the device, delivering a model and technical details to the vice president of one of the affiliates of the newly established Western Union Telegraph Company, asking permission to demonstrate his "Talking Telegraph" on the wires of the Western Union system. However, each time that Meucci contacted this vice president, a certain Edward B. Grant, he was told that there had been no time to arrange the test. Two years passed, after which Meucci demanded the return of his materials, only to be told that they had been "lost." It was then 1874.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent which does not really describe the telephone but refers to it as such. When Meucci learned of this, he instructed his lawyer to protest to the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, something that was never done. However, a friend did contact Washington, only to learn that all the documents relevant to the "Talking Telegraph" filed in Meucci's caveat had been "lost." Later investigation produced evidence of illegal relationships linking certain employees of the Patent Office and officials of Bell's company. And later, in the course of litigation between Bell and Western Union, it was revealed that Bell had agreed to pay Western Union 20 percent of profits from commercialization of his "invention" for a period of 17 years. Millions of dollars were involved, but the price may been cheaper than revealing facts better left hidden, from Bell's point of view.

In the court case of 1886, although Bell's lawyers tried to turn aside Meucci's suit against their client, he was able to explain every detail of his invention so clearly as to leave little doubt of his veracity, although he did not win the case against the superior - and vastly richer - forces fielded by Bell. Despite a public statement by the then Secretary of State that "there exists sufficient proof to give priority to Meucci in the invention of the telephone," and despite the fact that the United States initiated prosecution for fraud against Bell's patent, the trial was postponed from year to year until, at the death of Meucci in 1889, the case was dropped.

The story of Antonio Meucci is still little known, yet it is one of the most extraordinary episodes in American history, albeit an episode in which justice was perverted. Still, the genius and perseverance of an Italian immigrant - genius, poor businessman, tenacious defender of his rights against incredible odds and grinding poverty - is a story which must be told. Antonio Meucci is waiting to be recognized as the inventor of a key element in our modern culture.

Here are some other relevant websites:
The Garibaldi-Meucci Museum
Antonio Meucci - Written by Admin on June 10, 2019 in Heroes-villains
Antonio Meucci
Antonio Meucci: Famous Scientists
Bell did not invent telephone, US rules
The Garibaldi Meucci Museum


  Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937)


His early experiments with Hertzian waves led him to conducting experiments at the family villa in Italy and later in England where he would file a patent for wireless telegraphy. Although Marconi shares the 1909 Nobel Prize in physics, he was acknowledged for his ability to put together a "practical, usable system" for wireless transmission of radio waves over long distances.
Marconi did not immigrate to America, but in 1903, he established a wireless station in South Wellfleet, Massachusetts, allowing President Theodore Roosevelt to send a Morse code message to King Edward VII of England the first transatlantic message from a U. S. President to a European ruler. Marconis wireless communications (known as Marconigrams) were essential for transmitting messages to and from ships, and his application expanded from cruise ships to battleships when World War I began.
Written by Janice Mancuso  

Here are some other relevant websites:

Nobel Prize in Physics
Guglielmo Marconi
Guglielmo Marconi: The Invention of Radio
The Nobel Prize – Guglielmo Marconi
National Inventors Hall of Fame

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  Alessandro Volta (1745-1827)

 Inventor of the voltaic pile – the first electric current battery – and namesake of volt, Volta was born in Como (region of Lombardia) to an aristocratic family. Volta was seven years old when his father died; and a few years later, Volta was enrolled in a Jesuit school in preparation for a career as a priest. He studied philosophy and literature for a few years, but developed a greater interest in physics and chemistry. During the late 1760s, he wrote to several prominent physicists about his theories on electricity, following with a dissertation in 1769; and his writings continued to be published. In 1774, Volta was appointed Superintendent of Schools in Como, and in 1775, he became Professor of Experimental Physics. He improved and named the electrophorus – a charging device – and studied the properties of combustible gases, discovering methane.

 In 1778, Volta was appointed to chair the Experimental Physics department at Pavia University, a position he held until the early 1800s. While there, he worked on Galvani’s theory of conducting electricity, and developed the voltaic pile – a tower of zinc and silver or copper discs alternating with brine-soaked cardboard, with wires attached to the top and bottom of the pile that produced sparks when connected. In 1794, Volta received the Copley Medal, an award given by the Royal Society of London for a distinguished achievement in science. After the invention of the voltaic pile, Volta traveled, lectured, and received many awards and honors, among them the Order of the Iron Crown by Napoleon. Volta retied to his family estate in 1819, and died in 1827. In 1881, the volt was named in his honor, and on the 100th anniversary of his death, Il Tempio Voltiano (The Volta Temple) – which houses many of his papers and original instruments – was constructed on Lake Como.
Written by Janice Mancuso

Here are some other relevant websites: 
Il Tempio Voltiano
Alessandro Volta
Alessandro Volta: Famous Scientists
Alessandro Volta: Electricity and Magnetism

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