Galvani in 1780 discovered what he called the “animal electricity”. He found that connecting a nerve in a frog leg to two different interconnected metals causes the leg to contract (See image below).
What happens here is that, the circuit gets completed via the frog leg and the voltage difference between the two different metals causes an electric current to be produced. This electrical stimulation of nerves causes muscle contraction, because that is how nerves communicate with muscles in animal body.
So, it was not animal electricity as Galvani had called it, but electricity generated by metal-metal contact that caused animal leg to contract. And this was what Volta proved in 1794. Alessandro Volta invented electric battery and did not use any biological material in his device. He produced electricity using copper and zinc plates, separated by brine-soaked paper disks.
These inventions led to the electric revolution, starting an age of electricity powered societies. The batteries based on this design were the main source of electricity for nearly a century till the invention of electric motors and electric generators.
Now, here comes an interesting find. There is an ancient Indian text written by Sage Agastya, called the Agastya Samhita, composed in Sanskrit language. Sage Agastya was a revered sage of the vedic times. He is mentioned in texts as ancient as Rigveda and Ramayana. Now, Rigveda is said to be composed at the least around 1200 BCE. Which means, Sage Agastya lived at the least some 3000 years before Volta.
Below is a verse we find in Agastya Samhita.
Here is a translation of the above text in English.
Place (संस्थाप्य – sansthaapya) a clean (मृण्मये – susanskritam) copper plate (ताम्रपत्रं – taamrapatram) in an earthen pot (मृण्मये पात्रे – mrinamaye paatre).
Cover (छादये – chhaadye) it with copper sulphate (शिखिग्रीवा – shikigreeva) and then add (चार्दाभि – chaardhaabhih) moist sawdust (काष्ठापांसु – Kaashtapaamsu) on top of it.
Next, deposit (निधात्वय: – nidhaatavya) a mercury-amalgamated (पारदाच्छादितस्तत: – paardaachhaditastatah) zinc (दस्तालोष्टो – dastaaloshto).
This combination will create (संयोगाज्जायते – sanyogajjayte) a glorious energy (तेजो – tejo) called (संज्ञितम् – sangyitam) Mitra-Varuna (मित्रावरुण – mitravaruna).
This is a crystal clear description of a voltaic cell! Moist sawdust is used instead of brine-soaked paper disks used by Volta. In other words, this verse is telling us that the knowledge to manufacture an electric battery existed in ancient India, at the least some 3000 years before they were re-invented in modern times!!
What is even more interesting are another two lines that we find in the same Agastya Samhita.
The above two lines are saying that using around 100 such earthen pots will give you enough electrical energy to break water (जलभंगोस्ति – jalabhangosti) and there by generate oxygen and hydrogen (प्राणो दानेषु वायुषु – praanodaaneshu vaayuhu). In other words, these lines are talking about electrolysis of water using a voltaic pile! Voltaic Pile is the first electrical battery that provided a steady supply of electric current for considerable amount of time.
Experiments done to create a battery using the methods mentioned in Agastya Samhita have shown to generate around 1.4 V of electric potential, while around 1.23V of potential difference is sufficient for the electrolysis of water. Amazing, isn’t it?
Then two more lines mentioned above go on to say that, Hydrogen (obtained by the breaking down of water) can be captured in an airtight container and which then can be used for aerodynamic applications! Think about Hydrogen balloons!! By the way, did you note that, Oxygen and Hydrogen were also already known during the times of Agastya !!!
So, here we are staring at some text that is at the least 3000 years old and is describing how to produce a steady supply of electric current and do electrolysis of water! No doubt, we have a lot yet to find out about the history of our ancestors, their life style, their knowledge and technological advances.
After all, humans have been having this intelligent brain at the least for the past 300,000 years (based on fossils found in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco) and civilizations have thrived at the least for some 12,000 years.
So if only in the past 4-5 centuries intelligent humans could come up with so many discoveries and inventions, it is only natural that advanced scientific inventions and discoveries may have happened in the distant past as well.
After all, those civilizations that thrived for thousands of years in the distant past also had humans with the same intelligent brains as we have today.
And yes, the question also remains about what more advances were done using this knowledge in those ancient times and what happened to all that knowledge? Assuming that the knowledge was lost due to the end of civilizations then, and knowing that this text is still available even today, why was no effort made to build up on this knowledge in recent history, say 1000 years ago?