Biography of Carlo Matteucci


Carlo Matteucci repeated and improved Galvani’s experiments on bioelectricity. His experiments had stimulated further study of Du Bois-Reymond and were at the very beginning of bioelectrochemistry. Carlo Matteucci was born at Forli, in the Romagna, Italy, on 21 June, 1811.

He was the son of Vincenzo Matteucci, a physician, and Chiara Folfi. Matteucci studied mathematics at the University of Bologna from 1825 to 1828, receiving his doctorate in 1829. Then in October 1829 he went to the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris for two years as a foreign student.

In 1831 he returned to Forli and began to experiment in physics holding professor chair at the University of Bologna. He remained at Florence until his father’s death in 1834, then he went to Ravenna and later to Pisa. His study of the Voltaic battery led him to announce the law that the decomposition in an electrolytic cell corresponds to the work developed in the elements of the pile.

From the external effect it became possible to calculate the material used up in the pile. In 1837 he was invited by his friend Buoninsegni, president of the Ravenna Hospital, to take responsibility on the hospital chemical laboratory and at the same time to get the title and rank of professor of physics at the college. There he did most excellent work and soon became famous.

Arago, hearing about the vacancy of a chair of physics at the University of Pisa, wrote to Humboldt asking him to recommend Matteucci to the Grand-Duke of Tuscany. This application was successful and Matteucci continued his researches as the professor of physics at the University of Pisa starting from 1840. He developed by ingenious experiments our knowledge of electrostatics, electro-dynamics, induced currents, but his greatest achievements however were in the field of electro-physiology.

Carlo Matteucci followed the work of Galvani, and his hypothesis of animal electricity (…”in animals there is a particular machine capable of generating a disequilibrium”…). In the 1830′s Carlo Matteucci, professor of physics at Pisa, began a series of experiments that were to continue until his death in 1865. His primary interest was in the “animal electricity” demonstrated by Galvani in his second series of experiments not involvingcontact with metals. Using a very sensitive Nobeli’s galvanometer Matteucci was able to prove beyond a doubt that an electrical current was generated by injured tissues and that in fact, serial stacking of such tissue could multiply the current in the same fashion as adding more bimetallic elements to a Voltaic pile. The current was continuously flowing–a direct current– and the existence of at least this type of “animal electricity” was finally and unequivocally proven. However, it was not located within the central nervous system per se and seemed to have little relationship to the long sought “vital force.”

Matteucci published many of his observations in a book in 1847 which came to the attention of Johannes Muller, then the foremost physiologist in the world and professor at the medical school in Berlin. Muller had been of the opinion that while electricity could stimulate a nerve, it was not involved in its normal function in any manner, and he continued to embrace the vitalistic doctrine of a mysterious “vital force.” When he obtained a copy of Matteucci’s book he gave it to one of his best students, Du Bois-Reymond, with the suggestion that he attempt to duplicate Matteucci’s experiments.

Du Bois-Reymond was a skilled technical experimenter and within a year he had not only duplicated Matteucci’s experiments, but had extended them in a most important fashion.

He discovered that when a nerve was stimulated an electrically-measurable impulse was produced at the site of stimulation and then traveled at high speed down the nerve producing the muscular contraction. Du Bois-Reymond had discovered the nerve impulse, the basic mechanism of information transfer in the nervous system. He was not unaware of the importance of his discovery, writing, ” I have succeeded in realizing in full actuality (albeit under a slightly different aspect) the hundred years dream of physicists an physiologists.”

Carlo Matteucci demonstrated that an electric current accompanies each heart beat. He used a preparation known as a ‘rheoscopic frog’ in which the cut nerve of a frog’s leg was used as the electical sensor and twitching of the muscle was used as the visual sign of electrical activity (Matteucci C., Sur un phenomene physiologique produit par les muscles en contraction. Ann. Chim. Phys. 1842, 6, 339-341).

According to A. De La Rive, author of Matteucci’s commemoration in “Il Nuovo Cimento”, Matteucci wrote many papers on his electrophysiological investigations and on meteorology. Among them De La Rive stresses the importance of: several papers on heat and electricity (1830), the “Treatise of electrophysiological phenomena of the animals” (Trattato dei fenomeni elettrofisiologici degli animali) (1844), the “Course of electrophysiology” (Corso di elettrofisilogia) (1857), a tetxbook entitled “Special Course on Induction, Magnetism of Rotation and Diamagnetism” (Corso speciale sull’induzione, sul magnetismo di rotazione e sul diamagnetismo) (1858), a paper on “Annales de Chimie et de Physique” entitled “Electro-physiological Researches applied to electrophysiology” (1868).

In “Il Nuovo Cimento”, Matteucci wrote 46 papers. Among them: 13 on electricity, 5 on electromagnetism, 4 on metereology, 2 on electrolysis, and 3 on geophysics. Some of the Matteucci’s papers are available in the Internet.

In 1846 Carlo Matteucci invented the kymograph. Physiologists first used Kymographs for recording blood pressure. Experimental psychologists adopted the kymograph as an instrument for recording various time-related events: response times, stimulus presentations, muscle exertion and tuning fork vibrations. The three models on display in this exhibition were mechanically driven and a “governor” regulated the speed of the brass drum.

“An instrument used to record the temporal variations of any physiological or muscular process; it consists essentially of a revolving drum, bearing a record sheet (usually of smoked paper) on which a stylus or penpoint travels to and from at right angles to the motion of the cylinder; the drum is rotated by a mechanism at a presumably uniform rate, or the rate is indicated by a time marker which registers on the sheet. In some types the record sheet surrounds the drum, which rotates spirally, to allow a continuous record at different levels of the sheet; in other cases the record sheet is a long roll.” Warren (1934).

The preparation of the smoked paper, an art in itself, consisted of placing a blank sheet of paper over a stand and exposing it to petroleum lantern fumes. The experimenter then wrapped the smoked paper around the drum ready for the touch of the inscriber. The signal marker would contact the drum as it rotated, leaving a line record. Following the recording, the experimenter varnished the paper for permanent keeping. (Titchener, 1918)

In 1855 Carlo Matteucci founded together with Raffaele Piria “Il Nuovo Cimento” – an Italian scientific journal. He was deeply involved in political affairs; he became senator for life and in 1862, as minister of Public Education, reorganized the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa as the first Italian Institute for advanced studies. He was correspondent member of the Academy of Science of Paris (starting from 1857), Minister of Public Education (1862), one of the 15 members of Italian Scientifical Society (from 1866), and professor at the Museum of Florence on 1868.

Carlo Matteucci also performed experiments in the field of electromagnetism. The device presented here illustrates Matteucci’s research in the field of the magnetism and electromagnetic induction. Matteucci succeeded in determining the electric current developed by induction in a metal disc turning in the presence of a constant magnet.

Faraday had discovered the presence of induction currents in Arago’s disc and had demonstrated that these currents increase upon increasing of the rotation speed of the disc. Following these works, Matteucci studied the current induced in the turning disc. This device was made by Gustave Froment ( 1815-1864 ), one of the most skillful builders of instruments of precision of the XIXth century.

Matteucci died in Ardenza, near Livorno, Italy on June, 24, 1868.


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