Biography of Nicolò Barsanti
Born in Pietrasanta (Lu) on October 12 – 1821 son of Giovanni Barsanti, a marble sculptor and Angela Francesconi. He was a delicate child with good natured and affectionate nature. His mother was contrary to sending him to school because she thought it would harm her delicate son’s health, while his father was not favorable to bringing the boy to work with him and thought that an instruction would give him a better life to live.
At the age of six, Nicolò crossed the threshold of the institute Scuole Pie in the S. Augustino Convent of Pietrasanta, which was run and taught by Piarist Fathers. Nicolò attended the institute until the age of seventeen, concluding high school with excellent results in all subjects but showing a very marked inclination for the exact sciences and for mathematics and physics in particular. When his school education was concluded, Nicolò’s father supposed he would go to the University of Pisa to study engineering or medicine. When young Barsanti went to the headmaster of the institute to get what nowadays would be called his High School Diploma, he told him he wanted to join the religious congregation of the Piarists, if they would accept him. The headmaster was quite happy of this and took on the task of informing Nicolo’s family of his decision.
His father, Giovanni, was a bit reluctant to accept his son’s will when he came to know of it , but after thinking it over he surrendered to Nicolòs will and told his wife, Angela, who was happy for her son’s decision. On July 17, 1838 Nicolo’ went to Florence with Father Bottari and completed his novitiate at the Institute of Calasanzio “Il Pellegrino” in via Bolognese. There he put on the habit that S. Giuseppe Calasanzio had commanded for his congregation and changed his name to Eugenio dell’Addolorata. After two years of prayers and religious studies and, once his novitiate had ended, Eugenio continued his researches at S. Giovannino College attending the Ximenian Observatory directed by Father Giovanni Inghirami. In September 1841 Father Inghirami summoned Father Eugenio Barsanti, who was not yet a priest, to his studio and informed him that he was being transferred to S. Michele College in Volterra to teach elementary physics and mathematics; “…Father, I thought that you had called me to look at the stars…- a confused Father Barsanti said – Do not fear; though I am young, if you think I am the right one for this task, I will do my best.” In spite of the excellent references of Father Inghirami, when the headmaster of the college in Volterra, Father Alessandro Sarri, was quite afraid when he saw what a young priest had been sent because he was only a bit older than his future students.
The young professor dedicated himself to teaching with so much passion and enthusiasm that his students were charmed. It was the spring of 1843 when the “little schoolmaster”(as his pupils called him due to his young age and thin stature) entered the classroom holding a container with a long neck, an instrument he had built himself for the experiment he was about to do. That instrument was a reproduction of a Volta pistol. The little schoolmaster explained to his students what he was going to do. He filled the container with hydrogen and air, closed the neck hermetically with a cork, and then let off an electric spark from the tip of an insulated brass rod with two little spheres at the end. Instantly, a deafening explosion shot the cork up to the ceiling and the classroom echoed with the noise. He explained to his frightened students what had happened: the spark had ignited the gaseous mix which expanded and produced the explosion which had expelled the cork. The instrument built by Barsanti is still kept in Volterra. This experiment gave Barsanti an idea: to use the explosion of a gaseous mixture to generate a force that could be used in a continuos motion engine that would be more efficient than a steam engine.
In a document kept at the Ximenian archive one can find the following script: “Father Eugengio Barsanti had repeatedly noticed that the instrument would heat up at the moment of the explosion and this heat was directly proportional to how much the cork was pressed down and that the heat would reach its maximum when the cork was pressed down so much that the explosion of the mixture could not expel it. From this observation he deduced that the explosive force of the mixture of hydrogen and air was not as violent as the noise it produced would make it seem, and that the dynamic effects could be regulated compelling them to be transformed, partially or totally into heat.” The concept of equivalence between thermal and mechanic energy is evident, as it was in Barsanti’s clear and working mind. It is said that his experiments at the College in Volterra continued while he remained, and that the explosions were so frequent, especially at night, that it was believed that secret arms were being created at the college. In September 1845, Father Eugenio Barsanti was ordained and celebrated his first mass in his native town, in S. Augustine Church of Pietrasanta. Father Barsanti was an excellent teacher and a scrupulous and tireless scientest but he never forgot his sacerdotal dignity. After a well deserved rest at home, Barsanti was sent to Florence to teach moral philosophy and geometry in 1848 and mathematics and physics a year afterwards at S. Giovannino College. One of his most famous pupils between 1849 and 1852 was Giosue’ Carducci. Afterward, Barsanti was named assistant in mechanics and hydraulics in the Ximenian Institute. His life was lived between the continuous study of his engine and ecclesiastic duty.
Barsanti’s life ended on April 19 1864 at Seraing in Belgium exactly in the moment he was about to receive glory from the construction in series of his engine. He had arrived in Belgium in March but it was at Seraing that he contracted a serious form of typhoid fever. His body arrived at Livorno on May 24 and was first buried in a little house in Compiobbi, then it was moved to a crypt in S. Giovannino church of the Piarists of Florence in 1910. On October 24 1954, Father Barsanti’s mortal remains were transferred to the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.