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Who created voltage, watts, amps and ohms?

By Paul Niemann

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[June 19, 2008]  This sounds like one of those "Who is buried in Grant's tomb" jokes. Or "When was the War of 1812?" Or "How long did the 100 Years War last?" You get the idea.

RestaurantThe correct answer to the question in the headline is: their parents.

Let's start with a brief science lesson: A volt is the unit of electromotive force that will cause one ampere to flow through a resistance of one ohm.

In a previous story in this column, we discussed four inventors whose names are synonymous with their weather-related inventions: Fahrenheit, Celsius, Doppler and Richter. Most people had no idea that there were actually people for whom the inventions were named. (See article.)

So, who exactly are the inventors behind such electrical measurements as the volt, the watt, the amp and the ohm?

Each inventor was born in Europe in the 1700s, and even though they probably never met each other, they remain linked together forever in history.

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Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) was born in Como, Italy; James Watt (1736-1819) was born in Greenock, Scotland; Andre-Marie Ampere (1775-1836) was born in Paris, France; and Georg Ohm (1789-1854) was born in Erlangen, Germany.

Count Alessandro Volta was a physicist who developed the forerunner of the electric battery, called a voltaic pile back then, which produced a steady stream of electricity. As a result of his work, Napoleon made him a count in 1801 and, of course, the volt was named after Volta.

James Watt was a mechanical engineer who made mathematical instruments. He married his cousin, which tends to happen when you go to family reunions in order to meet women. They had six children together, but there's no report of any of the kids ever referring to him as "Uncle Dad." 

This is the same James Watt for whom the steam engine is named. Contrary to popular belief, Watt did not invent the steam engine. He made improvements to it, making it more efficient than the original model, invented by Thomas Newcomem.

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Andre-Marie Ampere is credited as one of the main discoverers of electromagnetism, also known as electrodynamics. The Paris Conference of Electricians named the unit of electric current after Ampere; it is usually referred to by its shortened name of amp.

Ampere was an expert in mathematics, chemistry and physics, but his personal life was a series of one tragedy after another. Soon after his father was elected justice of the peace in Lyon, France, Ampere's sister died. Then his father was beheaded, sending Ampere into a major period of depression. This lasted about 18 months, until he met and fell in love with his future wife, Julie. Less than four years into their marriage, Julie became ill and died soon after giving birth to their son. Ampere remarried in 1806, but this marriage lasted less than a year. At least he didn't marry his cousin like James Watt did.

Neither of Georg Simon Ohm's parents was formally educated, yet his locksmith father had educated himself and gave Georg and his brother each an excellent education. He self-taught them at home in their early years and then sent them to school, where Georg went on to become a physicist.


The ohm is a unit of electrical resistance, and the symbol for an ohm is the Greek letter omega. Georg Ohm defined the fundamental relationship between voltage, current and resistance. The result became known as Ohm's Law.

Georg Olm also had the unit of electrical resistance named after him, putting him in the same elite company as Volta, Watts and Ampere.

Again, a volt is the unit of electromotive force that will cause one ampere to flow through a resistance of one ohm.


I have no idea. Science was not one of my best subjects.


Paul Niemann is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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