A Closer Eye on the Potato

This week’s video is part of a larger collaboration looking at the potato, and in particular at the potato battery:

The video begins with the potato battery and specifically Alessandro Volta’s pile, the world’s first battery. But it could also be argued that another invention of Volta lies behind the video’s ending point with the potato cannon. He invented a glass pistol-like device which used an electric spark to ignite flammable gas. It came about from a device  called the eudiometer designed by Joseph Preistley for testing the quality of the air, in other words its oxygen content. Volta’s pistol version made the device more portable, and Volta used it to ignite swamp gas, what we know now as methane. When the gas in the glass pistol ignited it blew a cork out of the end, so basically a cork gun or pop gun. This principle of expanding gasses firing a projectile also lies behind the potato cannon. As a side note, the scientist who worked out the role of oxygen in combustion was Antoine Lavoisier, also influenced by Priestley’s work with flammable air, who also happens to have been one of the notable figures invited to potato PR man Parmentier’s potato dinner.

 Volta's electric pistol

Volta's electric pistol

But getting back to Volta’s pile, though in English the word pile has been commonly replaced by that word battery, in French a battery can still be called a pile. In English a battery is also referred to as a cell. Cell comes from the Latin word cella meaning a "small room", and by way of analogy to the monastic cells, the small rooms in which monks lived in medieval monasteries, other concepts came to be referred to as cells, including biological cells, brain cells, and battery cells, essentially compartments that contain the anode and cathode suspended in the acidic electrolyte. So the term battery cell contains two metaphors, artillery and the medieval monastery. By the way if you’re interested in hearing more about the semantic development of the word cell and cellular, have a listen to the Words for Granted podcast episode on the word cellular.

Now as I said in the video, Volta was inspired to create the battery because of Galvani’s experiments with “animal electricity”. Well, experiments in galvanism was also one of the inspirations behind Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Those experiments in making animal muscles twitch using electricity suggested the notion of bringing a creature back to life, like the monster in Shelley’s book. And that brings us back to the potato-powered industrial revolution, because one of the ways Frankenstein is interpreted is as a response to industrialization. Romantic writers like Mary Shelley were often critical of the industrial revolution. You see they were great nature lovers and were therefore somewhat suspicious of the way industrialization and urbanization were transforming the countryside of Europe.  Furthermore, industrialization was seen as a perversion of the natural order, figured in the novel as Victor Frankenstein meddling with the natural forces of creation. And finally there was the worry that the industrial worker would be dehumanized or even replaced by scientific contrivances.

 Frankenstein creates his monster

Frankenstein creates his monster

 The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution

In light of the rapid transformation of the western world through industrialization these fears are not surprising. But the novel Frankenstein still resonates today, only the way we apply its warnings is somewhat different. Today we fear the rapid development of genetically modified foods, which we sometimes term Frankenfoods in reference to the novel. Well, each era has its own preoccupations and fears about rapid progress. We can take this back to the potato, one such genetically modified organism, varieties of which have been designed so as not to bruise and become discoloured. There are even potatoes being developed that are resistant to the potato blight disease which led to the terrible Irish famine in the 1840s.

In the video I described how the global tuber trade led to the mixing up of two similar vegetables the potato and the sweet potato. Well there’s another tuber that similarly gets thrown into the mix, the yam. Properly speaking a yam is an African derived tuberous vegetable in the genus Dioscorea, but in some parts of North America the word yam is sometimes applied to the unrelated sweet potato. The word yam, by the way, comes through Portuguese inhame, ultimately from a West African root which means “to eat” (compare Fulani nyami “to eat”).

 yams

yams

The spread of potatoes is just one example of the globalization of food, which I’ve touched on a number of times before, including the video and blog post on “Turkey” and more recently in our podcast episode on condiments. For Europe this globalization of food, and in particular the potato, allowed for the escape from the so-called Malthusian trap, the idea that population growth and a rising standard of living could not continue unabated due to lack of resources, which are finite. In other words population growth should outstrip the resources leading to shortage and starvation. But the agricultural revolution that was made possible in part due to the potato, along with the accompanying industrial revolution, took the limits off that resource growth and allowed it to keep up with the population boom, and our various technological advances, including things like artificial fertilizers and now genetically modified crops, allows us to continue to stay ahead of the Malthusian trap—for now.

 Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus

But if all this talk of potato based revolutions is becoming too serious, we can remind ourselves of the fun side of potatoes, not only with potato batteries and potato cannons, but also toys such as the spud gun, a kind of mini version of the potato cannon which uses compressed air to fire off small chunks of potato from a pistol reminiscent of Volta’s electric pistol. The spud gun was surprisingly invented during the Great Depression, when you’d think they’d have thought better of wasting food in that way. But the most famous potato-based toy is of course Mr Potato Head, which was originally designed to use an actual potato as the head, before this was replaced with a plastic potato-shaped base. Surprisingly it too was invented during the 1940s, around the time of food shortages, caused by World War II and its rationing. And anyways, don’t parents always say not to play with our food?

 spud gun

spud gun

 Mr Potato Head

Mr Potato Head

And I’ll leave you on  one last light-hearted potato note, the welcome potato. This photoshopped image was supposedly a demonstration of the dangers of careless use of Google translate in a sign designed to welcome the Pope. You see the word papa in Spanish can mean "potato" (borrowed from the Quechua word for the vegetable as I pointed out in the video), but it can also refer to the Pope as a kind of word for father (as in holy father). Although this was a photoshop job and not an actual Google translate error, the image became a popular meme. But I’ll leave it to you to decide how welcome the potato is to world history.

If you want to watch more about potato science, check out this playlist for experiments with potato batteries, potato cannons, potato chip psychology & more!