The History of Batteries

One of the most remarkable and novel discoveries in the last 400 years has been electricity.

One may ask, “Has electricity been around that long?” The answer is yes, and perhaps much longer. But the practical use of electricity has only been at our disposal since the mid-to late 1800s, and in a limited way at first. At the world exposition in Paris in 1900, for example, one of the main attractions was an electrically lit bridge over the river Seine.

In 1791, while working at Bologna University, Luigi Galvani discovered that the muscle of a frog contracted when touched by a metallic object. This phenomenon became known as animal electricity — a misnomer, as the theory was later disproven. Prompted by these experiments, Volta initiated a series of experiments using zinc, lead, tin or iron as positive plates. Copper, silver, gold or graphite were used as negative plates.

Volta discovered in 1800 that a continuous flow of electrical force was generated when using certain fluids as conductors to promote a chemical reaction between the metals or electrodes. This led to the invention of the first voltaic cell, better know as the battery. Volta discovered further that the voltage would increase when voltaic cells were stacked on top of each other. In the same year, Volta released his discovery of a continuous source of electricity to the Royal Society of London. No longer were experiments limited to a brief display of sparks that lasted a fraction of a second. A seemingly endless stream of electric current was now available. France was one of the first nations to officially recognize Volta’s discoveries. At the time, France was approaching the height of scientific advancements and new ideas were welcomed with open arms to support the political agenda. By invitation, Volta addressed the Institute of France in a series of lectures at which Napoleon Bonaparte was present as a member of the Institute.

New discoveries were made when Sir Humphry Davy, inventor of the miner’s safety lamp, installed the largest and most powerful electric battery in the vaults of the Royal Institution of London. He connected the battery to charcoal electrodes and produced the first electric light. As reported by witnesses, his voltaic arc lamp produced “the most brilliant ascending arch of light ever seen.”

Davy's most important investigations were devoted to electrochemistry. Following Galvani's experiments and the discovery of the voltaic cell, interest in galvanic electricity had become widespread. Davy began to test the chemical effects of electricity in 1800. He soon found that by passing electrical current through some substances, these substances decomposed, a process later called electrolysis. The generated voltage was directly related to the reactivity of the electrolyte with the metal. Evidently, Davy understood that the actions of electrolysis and the voltaic cell were the same.

In 1802, Dr. William Cruickshank designed the first electric battery capable of mass production. Cruickshank had arranged square sheets of copper, which he soldered at their ends, together with sheets of zinc of equal size. These sheets were placed into a long rectangular wooden box that was sealed with cement. Grooves in the box held the metal plates in position. The box was then filled with an electrolyte of brine, or watered down acid. The third method of generating electricity was discovered relatively late — electricity through magnetism. In 1820, André-Marie Ampere (1775-1836) had noticed that wires carrying an electric current were at times attracted to one another while at other times they were repelled.

In 1899, Waldmar Jungner from Sweden invented the nickel-cadmium battery, which used nickel for the positive electrode and cadmium for the negative. Two years later, Edison produced an alternative design by replacing cadmium with iron. Due to high material costs compared to dry cells or lead acid storage batteries, the practical applications of the nickel-cadmium and nickel-iron batteries were limited.

It was not until Shlecht and Ackermann invented the sintered pole plate in 1932 that large improvements were achieved. These advancements were reflected in higher load currents and improved longevity. The sealed nickel-cadmium battery, as we know it toady, became only available when Neumann succeeded in completely sealing the cell in 1947. From the early days on, humanity became dependent on electricity, a product without which our technological advancements would not have been possible. With the increased need for mobility, people moved to portable power storage — first for wheeled applications, then for portable and finally wearable use.

As awkward and unreliable as the early batteries may have been, our descendants may one day look at today’s technology in a similar way to how we view our predecessors’ clumsy experiments of 100 years ago.

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