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The volt (symbol: V) is the SI derived unit of electromotive force, commonly called "voltage". It is also the unit for the related but slightly different quantity electric potential difference (also called "electrostatic potential difference"). It is named in honor of the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta (1745–1827), who invented the voltaic pile, possibly the first chemical battery (see Baghdad Battery).


The volt is defined as the value of the voltage across a conductor when a current of one ampere dissipates one watt of power in the conductor. It can be written in terms of SI base units as: m2 · kg · s−3 · A−1. It is also equal to one joule of energy per coulomb of charge, J/C.

\mbox{V} = \dfrac{\mbox{W}}{\mbox{A}} = \dfrac{\mbox{J}}{\mbox{A} \cdot \mbox{s}} = \dfrac{\mbox{N} \cdot \mbox{m} }{\mbox{A} \cdot \mbox{s}} = \dfrac{\mbox{kg} \cdot \mbox{m}^2}{\mbox{A} \cdot \mbox{s}^{3}} = \dfrac{\mbox{kg} \cdot \mbox{m}^2}{\mbox{C} \cdot \mbox{s}^2} = \dfrac{\mbox{N} \cdot \mbox{m}} {\mbox{C}} = \dfrac{\mbox{J}}{\mbox{C}}

Josephson junction definition

Since 1990 the volt has been maintained internationally for practical measurement using the Josephson effect, where a conventional value is used for the Josephson constant, fixed by the 18th General Conference on Weights and Measures as:

K{J-90} = 0.4835979 GHz/µV.

Water flow analogy

In the water flow analogy sometimes used to explain electric circuits by comparing them to water-filled pipes, voltage difference is likened to water pressure difference – the difference determines how quickly the electrons will travel through the circuit. Current (in amperes), in the same analogy, is a measure of the volume of water that flows past a given point per unit time (volumetric flow rate). The flow rate is determined by the width of the pipe (analogous to electrical resistance), and the pressure difference between the front end of the pipe and the exit is analogous to voltage. The analogy extends to power dissipation: the power given up by the water flow is equal to flow rate times pressure, just as the power dissipated in a resistor is equal to current times the voltage drop across the resistor (amperes x volts = watts).

The relationship between voltage and current (in ohmic devices) is defined by Ohm's Law.

Common voltages

1.5 V C-cell batteries

Nominal voltages of familiar sources:

Note: Where RMS (root mean square) is stated above, the peak voltage is \sqrt{2} times greater than the RMS voltage for a sinusoidal signal centered around zero voltage.

History of the volt

In 1800, as the result of a professional disagreement over the galvanic response advocated by Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta developed the so-called Voltaic pile, a forerunner of the battery, which produced a steady electric current. Volta had determined that the most effective pair of dissimilar metals to produce electricity was zinc and silver. In the 1880s, the International Electrical Congress, now the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), approved the volt as the unit for electromotive force. At that time, the volt was defined as the potential difference [i.e., what is nowadays called the "voltage (difference)"] across a conductor when a current of one ampere dissipates one watt of power.

The international volt was defined in 1893 as 1/1.434 of the emf of a Clark cell. This definition was abandoned in 1908 in favor of a definition based on the international ohm and international ampere until the entire set of "reproducible units" was abandoned in 1948.

Prior to the development of the Josephson junction voltage standard, the volt was maintained in national laboratories using specially constructed batteries called standard cells. The United States used a design called the Weston cell from 1905 to 1972.

See also


  1. BIPM SI Brochure: Appendix 1, p. 144
  2. Bullock, Orkand, and Grinnell, pp. 150–151; Junge, pp. 89–90; Schmidt-Nielsen, p. 484

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