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The History of Batteries


A trip through 200+ years of power

There’s always been something futuristic about the battery. A mobile power source that can provide a charge anywhere from outer space to the ocean floor. They fit in your pocket for personal use or, these days, take the form of giant structures which can provide energy back-up in even the most demanding situations.

When it comes to the battery, there’s a lot of history to learn. The technology’s modern story begins in 18th Century America.

Birth of a Name

It was founding father Benjamin Franklin who coined the term battery. He first used it in 1749 to give a name to a collection of capacitors, each a metal-coated glass panel. They discharged current from their electrode when brought into contact with metal. Franklin contained the capacitors in a Leyden jar and later chained multiple jars together. He referred to them as batteries simply because they were interconnected.

The 1700’s were a big era for the battery. In 1780, Italian physicist Luigi Galvani stumbled onto what he termed “animal electricity;” the motion of muscles when stimulated by current and metallic objects. It was his countryman Allesandro Volta who refined the theory of electrical conduction into the Voltaic pile.

The stacked copper and zinc discs were separated by a brine-soaked piece of cardboard or cloth. This construction was revolutionary and allowed Volta to control the flow of electricity. The Voltaic pile gained public recognition in 1800 and was one of the original electric batteries. It was to take another leap forward soon after, courtesy of Scotsman William Cruickshank.

An immortal battery?

A lot of people would be interested in a battery that showed no signs of dying. The Oxford Electric Bell was constructed in 1825. Now in its 177th year, it’s still going (you can share in this YouTuber’s excitement here).

Actually two bells, this little wonder has a pipe above each bell containing metal discs and paste. The bells have a metallic ball between them, which oscillates via the voltage from the bells. To date, the power provided has caused this amazing battery to chime over ten billion times.

The 1800’s: A powerhouse century

The first rechargeable battery appeared in 1859, courtesy of French physicist Gaston Planté. His work was preceded by the Daniell Cell (a step up from the Voltaic pile) in 1836, and the Bird’s and Porous Pot cells in 1837 and 1838. Planté’s battery used two electrodes, a lead dioxide cathode, and a lead anode. These components (separated by a strip of rubber) interacted with a sulfuric acid electrolyte.

It delivered a 2V charge which, like its predecessors, could be increased by combining it with others. His compatriot Camille Faure would refine the technology, setting this battery on the way to becoming the forefather of our modern car battery.

The second half of the 1800’s saw three more big developments for the battery. France continued to make advancements, with George Leclanché and his dry cell carbon-zinc battery becoming instrumental in powering early telephones. This model would be significantly improved on in 1887 when Carl Gassner developed a more portable (and more commercially successful) version.

Toward the modern battery

As the century drew to an end, one of America’s foremost inventors put his stamp on battery history. Thomas Edison’s contributions led him into a legal battle with Waldemar Jungner of Sweden. Both men had been pursuing a successful battery along the same lines, each working independently of the other.

The patent dispute between the two inventors settled in favor of Edison. Edison’s work on alkaline batteries would continue into the early 20th century in the high hopes of creating a popular, battery-powered automobile. His wish didn’t come to pass, however. Henry Ford’s Model T made the internal combustion engine the standard for cars.

Samuel Ruben (the future founder of Duracell) developed the mercury button cell in 1942 at the request of the U.S. Army. The battery would help power munitions, walkie-talkies, and metal detectors. 1957 saw Canadian inventor Lewis Urry create the modern-day battery. His alkaline battery provided a greater amount of energy at higher currents than its predecessors.

It wowed a vice-president at the Everready Battery Company where Urry worked, and the company was selling alkaline batteries two years later. The prototype of Urry’s design can be seen at the Smithsonian Institute.

These are some of the most notable entries in battery history, but there are new developments in battery power taking place all the time. If you’d like to stay abreast of what the future holds for this versatile power source, be sure to bookmark our blog.

The construction industry and the battery-powered equipment that is beginning to power it are also constantly moving forward. If you’d like to learn more about battery-powered equipment, contact Triple E at (954)-978 3440 or send us a message detailing your needs.

February 14, 2018 By Alex Berg in Blog