De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius.

Bologna: Press of the Academy of Sciences, 1791.

First edition, incredibly rare offprint, one of 12 copies issued, of this epoch-making work, one of the most important in the history of electricity. Galvani’s paper was published in one of the ‘Opuscula’ of the journal De Bononiensi scientiarum et artium instituto atque academia (vol. 7, pp. 363-418); this offprint probably precedes the journal printing (see below). It is accompanied by four engraved plates, by his friend Jacopo Zambelli, which graphically illustrate Galvani’s dissections and electrical apparatus. Along with Harvey’s plate of the veins of the arm, they are the most famous of all illustrations in the history of biology. Evans summarized Galvani’s paper succinctly as “the description of the production of ‘current electricity’ by contact between two different metals and the legs of a frog (the latter acting as a galvanometer), which inaugurated the modern epoch in electricity.” “Although the existence of electricity had been recognized for many centuries, it was not until the eighteenth century, with the invention of man-made apparatus for its creation, that the study of electricity became a science. That electricity was involved somehow in the function of living tissue had been noted in studies of the activity of electric fishes and eels, but it was Luigi Galvani, professor of anatomy in Bologna, who first carried out systematic experiments demonstrating that muscular contraction results from an electric current” (Grolier, Medicine, p. 183). Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) repeated Galvani’s experiments, correctly interpreted the results as being due to contact electricity, and was thus led directly to the invention of the ‘Voltaic pile’, the first source of a continuous electric current and precursor of the modern electric battery. There are two different issues of this offprint. Both have separate pagination and register, and in both an ornamental border is added above the beginning of the article. The first issue is printed from the standing type of the journal, and has a half-title but no title page; the second issue, offered here, has a title but no half-title. “In this second issue [offered here] gathering A (eight pages) has been reset [and is] distinguished from the first issue by the catch syllables ‘si’, ‘His,’ and ‘mi-’ on pp. 3, 5 and 7 respectively” ( It was a copy of this second issue that Galvani sent to Volta, and which led to Volta’s great discoveries (this copy is now at the Huntington). OCLC lists copies (verified) at the Bodleian, University of British Columbia, Harvard, Huntington, University of Oklahoma, and the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris; there are also copies at the University of Bologna and the Hagströmer Library (Stockholm).ABPC/RBH records no copy of the first issue, and only Honeyman’s copy of the second (Sotheby’s, 5 November 1979, lot 1428, £15,400 = $35,831 – for comparison, Honeyman’s two copies of the 1687 Principia made £7700 and £8800). Only two copies of the first issue are known, the Fulton copy at Yale and one from the library of the Italian scholar Giaconto Amati offered by Quaritch in 2005 (Cat. 1332, no. 37) (OCLC also lists a copy at Columbia, which may be the Amati copy). A book edition of Galvani’s paper was published several months later at Modena (dated 1792), with notes and commentary by Giovanni Aldini, Galvani’s nephew and principal apologist, and with Don Bassano Carminati’s report of Volta’s repetition of Galvani’s experiments; in the book edition, the plates were re-engraved and printed on three sheets instead of four.

“By the end of the eighteenth century the connexion between nervous action and electricity had been the subject of investigation for some time. Newton, when discussing the properties of aether, had made suggestions that an electric spirit might convey sensations to the brain along the nerves and produce muscular reactions. Haller also made experiments trying to prove a connexion between electrical action and reflexes of the muscles. It was left to Luigi Galvani, professor of anatomy at Bologna, in ’On the Effects of Electricity on Muscular Motion’, to provide, as he thought, dramatic experiments on what he called ’animal electricity’ and afterwards ’galvanism’. Galvani observed in his laboratory that when a nerve in a frog’s leg was touched with a scalpel, violent contractions of the muscles occurred simultaneous with the sparks discharged from a nearby electrical machine. He further discovered that when one metal was placed in contact with a frog’s nerve, another with a muscle, and the metals touched, contraction of the muscle took place, without needing a spark from an electrical machine. As a physiologist, Galvani thought that this action was due to the presence of electricity in the animal itself, as in the ’electric eel’ and that the metal wires simply served as conductors. He did not realize that he had not discovered just a new physiological source of electricity, but a new source of continuous electric flow in chemical action. It was Alessandro Volta, a physicist, who proved that animals were inessential to ’galvanic’ electricity, and who constructed the first battery to cause a current to flow by chemical action” (Printing and the Mind of Man).

“No one who lives in the present age of electrical power needs to be reminded of the practical importance for technology of the availability of an electric current. Before the time of Galvani, electricity was available only at high potential and in short surges of charge, as in spark discharges. But once the electrical battery had been invented, the potential could be chosen at will within large ranges, and continuous currents at constant amperage were available. The development of the battery, with the allied physical principles, marked the beginning of a wholly new ear in physics. And in chemistry, the battery made possible the decomposition of many compounds and the isolation of new chemical elements, and it led to an understanding of the bonding forces that hold together the constituent parts of molecules. These great revolutions in physics, chemistry and engineering derived from the publication of Galvani’s book – although they were the product of an investigation that had as its aim to disprove Galvani’s fundamental postulate of animal electricity” (Cohen, p. 29).

“During the 1770’s [Galvani’s] research interests shifted to a considerable extent from largely anatomical to more strictly physiological studies, specifically on nerves and muscles. In 1772 Galvani read a paper on Hallerian irritability to the Istituto delle Scienze, and in 1773 he discussed the muscle movement of frogs before the same body. In 1774 he read a paper on the effect of opiates on frog nerves. These researches fused in his mind with slightly earlier eighteenth-century studies, several of them by Italians, on the electrical stimulation of nerves and muscles. Picking up where Beccaria, Leopoldo Caldani, Felice Fontana, and Tommaso Laghi had recently left off, Galvani began in late 1780 an extensive and meticulous series of investigations into the irritable responses elicited by static electricity in properly prepared frogs” (DSB).

“The initial observation, described by Galvani in his De viribus electricitatis, occurred when a dissected frog lay on a table on which there was an electrical machine. Violent contractions of the muscles of the frog’s limb occurred when an assistant touched the inner crural nerve with the point of a scalpel; and it was observed that the contractions occurred simultaneously with the discharge of a spark from the electrical machine, and only if the scalpel were grounded by the experimenter touching with a finger the iron nails that fastened the blade to the handle – if the experimenter held the bone without touching the nails or blade, so that the blade was insulated, no contractions occurred. What puzzled Galvani was the fact that these contractions occurred even if the frog was completely insulated from the machine and at some distance from it. He did not know that the insulated frog was most likely charged by induction, even though insulated from the machine, and that if the nerve were grounded when the machine was discharged, then the dissected frog would be discharged through the scalpel and experimenter, and that the sudden change of potential at the point where the scalpel was in contact with the nerve would produce a muscle contraction in no way dissimilar to the contractions excited electrically in experiments on living and dead animals for at least thirty years past …

“Galvani was stimulated by his observation and bewildered. But, like any good experimenter, he studied the puzzling phenomenon by varying the parameters. Thus, he changed over from using the charge produced by an electrical machine to the charges naturally produced in thunder-clouds. He found that his frog preparations, hanging by copper hooks from an iron railing, contracted not only during thunder-storms but in calm weather too. Impatient at the long wait between contractions in fair weather, he tells us that he began to scrape and press the copper hook (which was fastened to the backbone of the frog) against the iron railing and discovered that contractions were frequently produced, apparently in independence of variations in the weather. Similar results were produced indoors when the frog was placed on an iron plate and the brass hook was placed against the plate. This last experiment was varied in different ways, being performed in different places and at different times of the day, and using different metals. The major effects noticed were a variation in the intensity of the contractions with different metals and a complete absence of of contractions when non-conductors such as glass, gum, resin, stone or dry wood were employed. These results led him to believe that an electric fluid must be in the animal itself and he likened the whole process of a fine nervous fluid flowing from the nerves into the muscles to the passage of electricity in the discharge of a Leyden jar.

“The remainder of the book is an exploration of the action of this postulated animal electricity, or animal nervous electric fluid, in producing muscular contractions in cold-blooded and warm-blooded animals. The complete theory, developed at length in the book, has been summarised by [Emil] du Bois-Reymond as follows:

“1. Animals have an electricity peculiar to themselves, which is called Animal Electricity.

“2. The organs to which this animal electricity has the greatest affinity, and in which it is distributed, are the nerves, and the most important organ of its secretion is the brain.

“3. The inner substance of the nerve is specialized for conducting electricity, while the outer oily layer prevents its dispersal, and permits its accumulation.

“4. The receivers of animal electricity are the muscles, and they are like a Leyden jar, negative on the outside and positive on the inside.

“5. The mechanism of motion consists in the discharge of the muscular fluid from the inside of the muscle via the nerve to the outside, and this discharge of the muscular Leyden jar furnishes an electrical stimulus to the irritable muscle fibres, which therefore contract.”

“Such were the bases of Galvanism” (Cohen, pp. 27-8).

“Galvani’s celebrated treatise was issued in 1791, but just when it appeared is not clear. The imprimatur at the end of the volume is dated 27 March 1791 [this refers to the journal appearance]; but nearly a year elapsed from that date before the first repercussions aroused by the paper began to be heard. Galvani was supplied with a few offprints, one of which was forwarded to Volta and bears the inscription “Ex dono auctoris.” One would like to know the general tenor of Volta’s acknowledgement to the author, but in lieu of that one must be satisfied with the comments of Volta’s colleague, the professor of medicine at Pavia, Don Bassano Carminati, who under the date of 3 April 1792 acknowledged the receipt presumably of another copy which a mutual friend, the Abbé Felice Fontana, had brought him.

“In this acknowledgement Carminati tells of the interest aroused by the paper among his colleagues, particularly on the part of Spallanzani and of Volta who had ventured to suggest other interpretations than animal electricity to explain the convulsive movements. To this Galvani replied at length on 8 May, citing further observations – one on a human arm and leg amputated that very day – which appeared to favour his original interpretation of phenomena, “that served to bring somewhat nearer solution the most important problem in physiology – what is the physical cause of voluntary movement.

“Volta’s first public reaction to Galvani’s experiments was given in an address on 5 May 1792 at the Aula of the University of Pavia on the occasion of a “promotion” ceremony. Cameron Walker has pointed out that Volta did not take vigorous exception to Galvani’s work at this time but merely to his conclusions concerning animal electricity. Volta was prepared to suppose that the electricity might possibly come from an inherent animal electricity but he added, “I want more convincing proofs to overcome my lack of faith with regard to animal electricity.” Cameron Walker adds that this lack of faith did not refer to Galvani’s experiments as such but only to the inference that Galvani had thus proved the existence of animal electricity. Various other passages in Volta’s first memoir indicate that he was most cordial to Galvani and full of admiration for his work. It is also clear from internal evidence that on 5 May 1791 he had done little more than digest the contents of Galvani’s treatise and had not yet attempted to repeat his experiments, for he says: “The treatise which appeared a few months ago concerning the action of electricity on the movement of muscles, written by Signor A. Galvani, member of the Institute of Bologna and Professor of the University of that place, who has already distinguished himself by other anatomical and physiological discoveries, contains one of those great and brilliant discoveries which deserves to mark a new era in the annals of physics and medicine.”

“To be more specific, Volta believed that the convulsive movements described by Galvani were due to electric currents generated by friction – in short, “frictional” electricity rather than “animal” electricity …

“A rejoinder to Volta’s discourse soon came from the youthful Aldini, who must assuredly have received his uncle’s permission to reply; for he issued from a Mantua press under an imprimatur dated 28 July 1792 a reprint of De viribus electricitatis [the offered work] together with the Galvani-Carminati correspondence, to which is prefixed a 26-page commentary by himself under the title De animalis electricae theoriae ortu atque incrementis.

“From that time on, with but one exception, it is no longer from Galvani that the public hears in defence of animal electricity, but chiefly from the irrepressible Aldini, to whom, rather than to Galvani, Volta addresses some of his published correspondence. In 1793 and again in 1794 Aldini read before the Institute of Bologna a dissertation on the subject, the two having been published together in the latter year. These papers, translated into English, were reprinted in 1803 at which time Aldini subjoined three pages of “Conclusions” which do not happen to appear in the originals” (Cohen, pp. 159-160).

“The large number of publications devoted by Volta to Galvanism are an indication of the fascination of the subject. Two letters to Tiberius Cavallo in England, written in the fall of 1792, read at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1793, and published in the Philosophical Transactions, presented an account of Galvani’s discoveries together with Volta’s own experiments and observations. Although Volta indicates in this letter a belief in animal electricity … Volta also indicated that the stimulus in Galvani’s experiments was the juncture of two different metals by a moist body. Without completely discarding the possibility of an animal electricity, Volta made it plain that “metals used in the experiments, being applied to the moist bodies of animals, can by themselves, and by their proper virtue, excite and dislodge the electric fluid from its state of rest, so that the organs of the animal act only passively.” By the end of 1793 Volta had altogether rejected the existence of animal electricity and had begun to work out his own theory … Finally, one year after Galvani’s death, Volta hit upon a device for making the feeble Galvanic effect stronger. Volta showed that if a number of pairs of discs, one of copper and the other of zinc, were placed in a line, each pair separated from the next by a moistened cardboard disc, a greatly increased effect would be produced. This “pile,” as he called it, could even produce a shock if an experimenter simultaneously touched the copper disc at one end of the pile with one hand and the zinc disc at the other end of the pile with the other hand. This effect could be produced again and again, so that the instrument was like a Leyden jar with powers of restoring its charge after each discharge, with “an inexhaustible charge, a perpetual action or impulsion on the electric fluid” … So were the battery and the continuous current discovered” (Cohen, pp. 30-33).

“In retrospect, Galvani and Volta are both seen to have been partly right and partly wrong. Galvani was correct in attributing muscular contractions to an electrical stimulus but wrong in identifying it as an “animal electricity.” Volta correctly denied the existence of an “animal electricity” but was wrong in implying that every electrophysiological effect requires two different metals as sources of current. Galvani, shrinking from the controversy over his discovery, continued his work as teacher, obstetrician, and surgeon, treating both wealthy and needy without regard to fee. In 1794 he offered a defense of his position in an anonymous book, Dell’uso e dell’attività dell’arco conduttore nella contrazione dei muscoli (“On the Use and Activity of the Conductive Arch in the Contraction of Muscles”), the supplement of which described muscular contraction without the need of any metal. He caused a muscle to contract by touching the exposed muscle of one frog with a nerve of another and thus established for the first time that bioelectric forces exist within living tissue” (Britannica).

The journal volume containing Galvani’s paper has the same imprint (and date) as the present offprint, but “just when it appeared is not clear” (Cohen, p. 159). This question has now been answered by Walter Bernardi. “Galvani published his discovery in a 53-page [sic] Latin paper, which was included in the seventh volume of the Commentarii of the Bologna Academy of Sciences. When was Galvani’s Commentarius printed? The publishing date of his masterpiece, which is also the date of the birth of electrodynamics and electrophysiology, has always been a mystery to historians. Now, the examination of Sebastiano Canterzani’s manuscript correspondence in the University Library of Bologna allows us to solve the problem. [Canterzani (1734-1818) was secretary of the Bologna Academy of Sciences from 1766 until 1796.] The seventh volume of the Commentarii was dated 1791 and the imprimatur had been awarded on March 27, but it was published at the beginning of 1792, perhaps on January 2 or 3” (Bernardi, p. 102). “The delay in publication was a typical feature of the Commentarii, which was the official publication of the Bologna Institute of Sciences that collected the research work of its members. For this reason and also for its relatively small circulation, the Commentarii was not a very effective means of scientific communication. Galvani thus decided to print a few copies of De viribus separately, probably in 1791, and he sent these to various scientists; one of them reached Volta in Paris, in March 1792” (Piccolini & Bresadola, pp. 143-144). The long delay in printing this volume of the Commentarii explains why, despite the profound interest eventually excited by Galvani’s discoveries, there was little reaction until well into 1792, and no definitely dated reaction earlier than 3 April 1792, when Carminati received his copy of the offprint. As Fulton & Cushing have noted (p. 258), it was Carminati’s letter of acknowledgement to Galvani that “first drew the attention of the learned world to Galvani’s studies, and thus inaugurated the controversy with Volta which immediately followed.”

Dibner, Heralds of Science 59; Evans 34; Fulton and Stanton, Galvani 4; Garrison-Morton 593; Grolier, One Hundred Books Famous in Medicine 50; Horblit, One Hundred Books Famous in Science 37a; Norman 869; Osler 1243; Printing and the Mind of Man 240; Waller 11346; Wellcome III, p. 86; Wheeler Gift 575. Bernardi, ‘The Controversy on Animal Electricity in Eighteenth-Century Italy: Galvani, Volta and Others,’ in Nova Voltiana. Studies on Volta and His Times, edited by F. Bevilacqua and L. Fragonese, Vol. 1, pp. 101-114; De Andrade Martins, ‘Romagnosi and Volta’s Pile: Early Difficulties in the Interpretation of Voltaic Electricity,’ in ibid., Vol. 3, pp. 81-102. Fulton & Cushing, ‘A Bibliographical Study of the Galvani and the Aldini Writings on Animal Electricity,’ Annals of Science, Vol. 1 (1936), pp. 239-68 with 9 plates; Galvani, Commentary of the Effects of Electricity on Muscular Motion. Translated into English by Margaret Glover Foley, with Notes and a Critical Introduction by I. Bernard Cohen. Together with a Facsimile of Galvani’s De Viribus . . . and a Bibliography of the Editions and Translations of Galvani’s Book prepared by John Farquhar Fulton and Madeline E. Stanton (1953). Piccolino & Bresadola, Shocking Frogs: Galvani, Volta, and the Electric Origins of Neuroscience, Oxford, 2013.

4to (262 x 206 mm), pp. [1-2], 3-58, with four folding engraved plates. Contemporary marbled wrappers (wrappers rubbed and chipped at extremities, rear wrapper with closed tear, internally a few spots in the margins and some light browning and soiling).

Item #4822

Price: $195,000.00