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Volta's own illustrations of his Crown of Cups and
Voltaic Pile, the first batteries.
battery was invented in 1800 by
Alessandro Volta, but although it was a great sensation in
scientific circles, it was too crude and underperforming for
serious practical use. Later batteries, starting with
John Frederic Daniell's wet cell in 1836, provided more
reliable currents and were adopted by industry for use in
stationary devices, particularly in telegraph networks where, in
the days before electricital distribution networks, they were
the only practical source of electricity.
These so-called wet cells used liquid electrolytes, and were
thus prone to leaks and spillage if not handled correctly. Some,
gravity cell, could only function in a certain orientation.
Many used glass jars to hold their components, which made them
fragile. These practical flaws made them unsuitable for portable
appliances. It was only with the invention of dry cell
batteries—which solved the aformentioned flaws of wet cells by
replacing the liquid electrolyte with a paste—near the end of
the 19th century that portable electrical appliances finally
A Leyden jar, a form of
capacitor,not an electrochemical cell.
A "battery" of Leyden jars.
In the modern sense of the term, a battery is a device that
provides a current by means of an electrochemical reaction,
wherein electrons are transferred from one chemical to another.
However, the original usage of the term referred not to an
electrochemical cell but to a set of linked
Leyden jars, which, in the 18th century were used
by scientists as a means of storing charge. Leyden jars were the
first capacitors, and basically consisted of a glass jar whose
inner and outer surfaces were coated with metal foil, and had an
electrode running through its center. They could be charged with
a static generator, and discharged by touching a conductor to
its electrode. Scientists could obtain stronger discharges by
linking the electrodes of multiple jars together. It was
Benjamin Franklin who, in 1748, first used the word
"battery" to describe a similar assembly of glass plates with
lead sheets pasted on either surface.
Possible ancient batteries
Around 1936, archaeologists uncovered in a village near
Baghdad a set of terracotta jars which each contained a
rolled-up sheet of copper which housed an iron rod. Scientists
believe that this may have been an ancient
galvanic cell (roughly 2,000 years old, though its age is
still debated), and dubbed them the "Baghdad
Batteries". It is believed a common food acid, such as lemon
juice or vinegar, served as an electrolyte. Modern replicas have
successfully produced currents, lending credence to this
hypothesis. It is possible these jars were used for
electroplating, or even to produce mild electric shocks as a
source of religious experience. Although these may qualify as
the first batteries, it is thought that the ancient
Persians or possibly
Assyrians who made them did not understand electrical
theory. In any case, the knowledge of these pots was lost to
history and did not influence the "reinvention" of the battery
in the 19th century.
1800 - The Voltaic Pile
A zinc-copper Voltaic Pile.
A Voltaic Pile on display in the
Luigi Galvani was dissecting a frog affixed to a brass hook.
When he touched its leg with his iron scalpel, the leg twitched.
Galvani believed the energy that drove this contraction came
from the leg itself, and called it "animal electricity".
Alessandro Volta, a friend and fellow scientist, disagreed,
believing this phenomenon was actually caused by two different
metals being joined together by a moist intermediary, and began
experimenting to test his hypothesis. In 1800 Volta invented the
first true battery which came to be known as the
Voltaic Pile. The
Voltaic Pile consisted of pairs of copper and zinc discs
piled on top of each other, separated by a layer of cloth or
cardboard soaked in brine (i.e. the electrolyte). Unlike the
Leyden jar, the Voltaic Pile produced a continuous and
stable current, and lost little charge over time when not in
use, though his early models could not produce a voltage strong
enough to produce sparks.
He experimented with various metals and found that zinc and
silver gave the best results.
Volta believed the current was the result of two different
materials simply touching each other—an obsolete scientific
theory known as
contact tension—and not the result of chemical reactions.
Consequently, he regarded the corrosion of the zinc plates as an
unrelated flaw that could perhaps be fixed by changing the
materials somehow. However, no scientist ever succeeded in
preventing this corrosion. In fact, it was observed that the
corrosion was faster when a higher current was drawn. This
suggested that the corrosion was actually integral the battery's
ability to produce a current. This, in part, led to the
contact tension theory in favor of electrochemical theory.
The trough battery, which was basically a Voltaic
Pile laid down to prevent electrolyte leakage.
Volta's original pile models had some technical flaws, one of
them involving the electrolyte leaking and causing
short-circuits due to the weight of the discs compressing the
brine-soaked cloth. An Englishman named
William Cruickshank solved this problem by laying the
elements in a box instead of piling them in a stack. This was
known as the
Volta himself invented a variant which consisted of a chain of
cups filled with a salt solution, linked together by metallic
arcs dipped into the liquid. This was known as the Crown of
Cups. These arcs were made of two different metals (eg zinc and
copper) soldered together. This model also proved to be more
efficient than his original piles,
though it didn't prove as popular.
Another problem with Volta's batteries was short battery life
(an hour's worth at best), which was caused by two phenomena.
The first was that the current produced electrolysed the
electrolyte solution, resulting in a film of hydrogen bubbles
forming on the copper, which steadily increased the internal
resistance of the battery (This effect, called polarization,
is counteracted in modern cells by aditional measures). The
other was a phenomenon called local action, wherein
minute short-circuits would form around impurities in the zinc,
causing the zinc to degrade. The latter problem was solved in
William Sturgeon, who found that mixing some
mercury into the zinc eliminated the local action.
Despite its flaws, Volta's batteries provided a steadier
current than Leyden jars, and made possible many new experiments
and discoveries, such as the first electrolysis of water by
Anthony Carlisle and William Nicholson.
1836 - The Daniell cell
Schematic representation of Daniell's original cell.
A British chemist named
John Frederic Daniell searched for a way to eliminate the
hydrogen bubble problem found in the Voltaic Pile, and his
solution was to use a second electrolyte to consume the hydrogen
produced by the first. In 1836, he invented the
Daniell cell, which consisted of a copper pot filled with a
copper sulphate solution, in which was immersed an unglazed
earthenware container filled with
sulphuric acid, in which was immersed a zinc electrode. The
earthenware barrier was porous, and allowed ions to pass
through but kept the solutions from mixing. Without this
barrier, when no current was drawn the copper ions would drift
to the zinc anode and undergo reduction without producing a
current, effectively destroying the battery's life.
After a while copper buildup would block the pores and cut short
the battery's life. The Daniel cell provided a longer and more
reliable current than the Voltaic cell because the electrolyte
desposited copper (a conductor) rather than hydrogen (an
insulator) on the cathode. It was also safer and less corrosive.
It had an operating voltage of roughly 1.1 volts. It saw
widespread use in telegraph networks until it was supplanted by
the Leclanché cell in the late 1860s.
1844 - The Grove cell
Grove cell was invented by
William Robert Grove in 1844. It consisted of a
anode dipped in
sulphuric acid and a
cathode dipped in
nitric acid, separated by porous
earthenware. The Grove cell provided a high current and
nearly twice the voltage of the Daniell cell, which made it the
favored cell of the American telegraph networks for a time.
However, it gave off poisonous nitric oxide fumes when operated.
The voltage also dropped sharply as the charge diminished, which
became a liability as telegraph networks grew more complex.
Platinum was also very expensive. The Grove cell was
replaced by the cheaper, safer and better performing gravity
cell in the 1860s.
1859 - The lead-acid cell: the first
19th-century illustration of Planté's original
Up to this point, all existing batteries would be permanently
drained when all their chemical reactions were spent. In 1859,
Gaston Planté invented the
lead-acid battery, the first ever battery that could be
recharged by passing a reverse current through it. A lead acid
cell consists of a lead anode and a
lead oxide cathode immersed in
sulphuric acid. Both electrodes react with the acid to
produce lead sulphate, but the reaction at the lead anode
releases electrons whilst the reaction at the
lead oxide consumes them, thus producing a current. These
chemical reactions can be reversed by passing a reverse current
through the battery, thereby recharging it.
Planté's first model consisted of two lead sheets separated
by rubber strips and rolled into a spiral.
His batteries were first used to power the lights in train
carriages while stopped at a station. In 1881,
Camille Faure invented an improved version that consisted of
a lead grid lattice into which a lead oxide paste was pressed,
forming a plate. Multiple plates could be stacked for greater
performance. This design was easier to mass-produce.
Compared to other batteries, Planté's was rather heavy and
bulky for the amount of energy it could hold. However, it could
produced remarkably large currents in surges. It also had very
low internal resistance, meaning a single battery could be used
to power multiple circuits.
The lead-acid battery is still used today in automobiles and
other applications where weight isn't a big factor. The basic
principle has not changed since 1859, though in the 1970s a
variant was developed that used an gel electrolyte of a liquid,
allowing the battery to be used in different position without
failure or leakage.
Today cells are classified as "primary" if they produce a
current only until their chemical reactants are exhausted, and
"secondary" if the chemical reactions can be reveresed by
recharging the cell. The lead-acid cell was the first
1860s - The gravity cell
A 1919 illustration of a
gravity cell, also known as a crowfoot cell due
to distinctive shape of the electrnodes.
Sometime during the 1860s, a Frenchman by the name of Callaud
invented a variant of the
Daniell cell called the
This simpler version dispensed with the porous barrier. This
reduced the internal resistance of the system and thus the
battery yielded a stronger current. It quickly became the
battery of choice for the American and British telegraph
networks, and was used right up until the 1950s.
In the telegraph industry, this battery was often assembled on
site by the telegraph workers themselves, and when it ran down
it could be renewed by replacing the consumed components.
The gravity cell consisted of a glass jar, in which a copper
cathode sat on the bottom and a zinc anode was suspended beneath
the rim (the shape of the electrodes vaguely resemble the foot
of a crow, and so these were sometimes known as crowfoot cells).
Copper sulphate crystals would be scattered around the cathode
and then the jar would be filled with distilled water. As the
current was drawn, a layer of zinc sulphate solution would form
at the top around the anode. This top layer was kept separate
from the bottom copper sulphate layer by its lower density and
by the polarity of the cell.
The zinc sulphate layer was clear in contrast to the deep
blue copper sulphate layer, which allowed a technician to
measure the battery life with a glance. On the other hand, this
setup meant battery could only be used in a stationary
appliance, else the solutions would mix or spill. Another
disadvantage was that a current had to be continually drawn to
keep the two solutions from mixing by diffusion, so it was
unsuitable for intermittent use.
1866 - The Leclanché cell
A 1912 illustration of a Leclanché cell.
In 1866, Georges Leclanché invented a battery that consisted
of a zinc anode and a
manganese dioxide cathode wrapped in a porous material,
dipped in a jar of
ammonium chloride solution. The manganese dioxide cathode
had a little carbon mixed into it as well, which improved
electrolyte conductivity and absorption.
It provide a voltage of 1.4 to 1.6 volts.
This cell achieved very quick success in telegraphy, signalling
and electric bell work. It was used to power early
telephones—usually from an adjacent wooden box affixed to the
wall—before telephones could draw power from the line itself. It
couldn't provide a sustained current for very long. In lengthy
conversations the battery would run down rendering the
This was because certain chemical reactions in the cell
increased the internal resistance and thus lowered the voltage.
These reactions reversed themselves when the battery was left
idle, so it was only good for intermittent use.
1887 - The zinc-carbon cell: the first
Carl Gassner patented a variant of the Leclanché cell which
came to be known as the dry cell because it did not have a free
liquid electrolyte. Instead, the ammonium chloride was mixed
Plaster of Paris to create a paste, with a bit of
zinc chloride added in to extend the shelf life. The
manganese dioxide cathode was dipped in this paste, and both
were sealed in a zinc shell which also acted as the anode.
Unlike previous wet cells, Gassner's dry cell was more solid,
did not require maintenance, did not spill and could be used in
any orientation. It provided a potential of 1.5 volts. The first
mass-produced model was the Columbia dry cell, first marketed by
the National Carbon Company in 1896. The NCC improved Gassner's
model by replacing the plaster of Paris with coiled cardboard,
an innovation which left more space for the cathode and made the
battery easier to assemble. It was the first convenient battery
for the masses and made portable electrical devices practical.
flashlight was invented that same year.
zinc-carbon battery (as it came to be known) is still
1899 - The nickel-cadmium battery: the
first alkaline battery
In 1899, a Swedish scientist named
Waldmar Jungner invented the
nickel-cadmium battery, a rechargeable battery that had
nickel and cadmium electrodes in a potassium hydroxide solution;
the first battery to use an alkaline electrolyte. It was
commericalised in Sweden in 1910 and reached the United States
in 1946. The first models were robust and had significantly
better energy density than lead-acid batteries, but were much
1903 - The nickel-iron battery
Jungner also invented a nickel-iron battery the same year as
his Ni-Cad battery, but found it to be inferior to its cadmium
counterpart and consequently never bothered patenting it. It
produced a lot more hydrogen gas when being charged, meaning it
couldn't be sealed, and the charging process was less efficient
(it was, however, cheaper). However, Thomas Edison picked up
Jugner's nickel-iron battery design, patented it himself and
sold it in 1903. Edison wanted to commercialise a more
lightweight and durable substitute for the lead-acid battery
that powered some early automobiles, and hoped that by doing so
electric cars would become the standard, with his firm as its
main battery vendor. However, customers found his first model to
be prone to leakage and short battery life, and it did not
outperform the lead-acid cell by much either. Although Edison
was able to produce a more reliable and powerful model seven
years later, by this time the inexpensive and reliable
Model T Ford had made gasoline engine cars the standard.
Nevertheless, Edison's battery achieved great success in other
1955 - The common alkaline battery
Up until the late 1950s the zinc-carbon battery continued to
be a popular primary cell battery, but its relatively low
battery life hampered sales. In 1955, an engineer working for
Eveready (now known as
Lewis Urry was tasked with finding a way to extend the life
of zinc-carbon batteries, but Urry decided instead that alkaline
batteries held more promise. Up until now, longer-lasting
alkaline batteries were unfeasibly expensive. Urry's battery
consisted of a manganese dioxide cathode and a powdered zinc
anode with an alkaline electrolyte. Using powdered zinc gave the
anode a greater surface area. These batteries hit the market in
Late 1980s - The nickel metal-hydride
Near the end of the 1980s,
Stanford R. Ovshinsky invented the
nickel metal hydride battery, a variant of the NiCad which
replaced the cadmium electrode with one made of a
hydrogen-absorbing alloy (most commonly a mixture of the rare
earth metals such
neodymium and praseodymium]]). NiMH batteries tend to have
longer lifespans than NiCad batteries (and their lifespans
continue to increase as manufacturers experiment with new
alloys), and since cadmium is toxic, NiMH batteries are less
damaging to the environment.
1970s and 1990s - The lithium and
Lithium is the metal with lowest density and has the greatest
electrochemical potential and energy-to-weight ratio, so in
theory it would be an ideal material for batteries.
lithium batteries began in 1912 under G.N. Lewis, and in the
1970s the first lithium batteries were sold.
In the 1980s, an American chemist
John B. Goodenough lead a research team at Sony that would
lithium ion battery, a rechargeable and more stable version
of the lithium battery; the first ones were sold in 1991.
In 1996, the
lithium ion polymer battery was released. These batteries
hold their electrolyte in a solid polymer composite instead of a
liquid solvent, and the electrodes and separators are laminated
to each other. The latter difference allows the battery to be
encased in a flexible wrapping instead of a rigid metal casing,
which means such batteries can be specifically shaped to fit a
particular device. They also have a higher energy density than
normal lithium ion batteries. These advantages have made it a
choice battery for portable electronics such as mobile phones
PDAs, as they allow for more flexible and compact design.
References and notes
h James B. Calvert.
The Electromagnetic Telegraph. Retrieved on
Letter to Peter Collinson, Benjamin Franklin (1749)
Origin of Electrical Power, National Museum
of American History; Last accessed on Jan 2, 2007
Institute and Museum of the History of Science.
Trough Battery. Retrieved on
Volta and the "Pile", Case Western Reserve
University; Last accessed on Jan 2, 2007
Experiments in Electrochemistry; Last accessed on
Feb 22, 2007.
Corrosion-doctors.org; Last accessed on Jan 3, 2007
Tools of Telegraphy, Telegraph Lore; Last
accessed Jan 9, 2007
Gregory S. Raven,
Recollections of a Narrow Guage Lightning Slinger
Zinc-Carbon Batteries, Molecular Expressions; Last
accessed Jan 9, 2007
Leclanché Cell. Retrieved on
The Columbia Dry Cell Battery, American
Chemical Society; Last accessed on Jan 9, 2007
IEEE Virtual Museum.
Edison's Alkaline Battery. Retrieved on
History of electrochemistry
Electric batteries |
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