The History of the Electric Battery

The invention and early development of the electric battery was created from a mixture of superstition and rational investigation. Strange as it sounds, the story of its creation speaks as much about the irrational nature of human endeavor as it does about the quest to harness the forces of nature. Considering this, it should come as no surprise that it all began with a doctor who created for himself the persona of a mad scientist. Of course, something as extravagant as that in the 18th Century could have happened only in Italy.

The story begins around 1790 when Dr. Luigi Galvani made an amazing discovery. He claimed that he had found a way for it to be possible to resurrect the dead by the means of reanimating dead flesh. The following year he published his findings and it created a firestorm in nearby Milan among the intelligentsia (i.e. overeducated dilettantes). Dr. Galvani claimed that the movement of the human body was caused by electricity and that electricity was resident in the cells and only needed to be reactivated. Further, he was able to demonstrate how it could be done by probing the dissected leg of a frog with an iron scalpel. The implications were staggering.

Over in Bologna, Alessandro Volta had been working on devising methods to produce electricity in the university’s laboratory (except that he wasn’t the one who was full of baloney). He suspected that there was something very fishy about Galvani’s claims. Then, by reproducing Galvani’s experiment, he found out what it was. It was saltwater (brine). Here’s how it happened. The frog leg was placed in a solution of saltwater and attached by a copper hook to hold it in place. When the iron scalpel came into contact with the copper hook and the frog leg simultaneously, it caused an electric current to pass through leg making it twitch.

What Volta correctly deduced from this experiment was that, while the frog leg acted as a conduit for electricity, the electric charge was produced by the corrosion of two dissimilar metals in contact with each other by the presence of saltwater. On further investigation, he found that the two metals, which were the most dissimilar electrically and could produce the greatest electrical charge, were silver and zinc. By stacking a column of alternating discs of silver and zinc separated by discs of cardboard soaked in brine, he created the world’s first battery in 1800. Volta’s column, “pila” in Italian, came to be called the voltaic pile in English. It was an immediate success.

Galvani’s adherents were not deterred. While the resulting electricity had been proven to be from the chemical reaction and not to be resident in the tissue, Volta’s conclusions still proved that the tissue was the conduit and that electricity was the cause of the movement of life. To them, this indicated that life could be restored by the introduction of electricity to dead tissue. It also seemed to indicate that the human body, therefore, must be rechargeable. And it was on this basis that Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein in 1814. It started a whole genre of science fiction monsters that have frightened (and also delighted) children ever since.

Meanwhile, William Nicholson, an Englishman, tried to duplicate Volta’s column in 1801 but bungled the setup so that it worked backwards. Far from being embarrassed, he announced that electricity could be used to bond dissimilar metals together. Several more years passed before Luigi Brugnatelli developed a workable process of electroplating. That process fueled an entire industry of counterfeiting that saw its greatest achievement in the United States in 1870. The government there issued a V nickel, without the words “cents” on it, which was readily electroplated with gold and passed off to immigrants and country bumpkins as five dollar gold pieces (but that’s another story).

Also in 1801, Sir Humphry Davy, yet another Englishman, invented the carbon arc lamp. This was the first use for which the harnessing of electricity had been intended ever since Benjamin Franklin had almost electrocuted himself almost forty years prior. And although the arc lamp never became practical to use with any degree of reliability, it did provide some really dramatic effects for Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory in the movie version of Frankenstein starring Colin Clive and Boris Karloff.

The next major advancement came in 1812 from a most unlikely source. Michael Faraday, a young bookbinder’s apprentice in England, constructed his own battery using six pence silver coins, zinc discs, and brine soaked paper. What he discovered, during one of his experiments, was that the needle of his compass was attracted to wire through which an electrical current was flowing. From this, he not only proved that an electrical current generates a magnetic field but also, conversely, that a magnetic field can be used to generate an electrical current. Further, he built the first electric generator and electric motor that transformed the use of electricity from a quest for artificial light to a means for the production of power.

This, in turn, provided Gaston Plante, in France, with the raison d’etre to develop the first rechargeable lead acid battery in 1859. This allowed for the use of the battery as a portable as well as reusable source of power so that by 1897 New York City had a whole fleet of battery powered electric taxis. Two years later, an electric automobile set a new land speed record. In almost every aspect, it was superior to automobiles that had an internal combustion engine even though they were fueled by a cheap and plentiful waste byproduct (gasoline) left over from the production of kerosene.

Continual improvements in lead acid battery, especially those by the Brush Electric Company, actually lead to the demise of the electric automobile. Manufactured in smaller and more reliable units, it became possible to incorporate a miniaturized version of the battery and electric motor into a gasoline powered automobile for effortless starting (no hand cranking required). This had its greatest impact on Henry Ford. It meant that he would no longer have to endure the site of his wife’s Detroit Electric automobile parked in his driveway.

Finally, at the close of the nineteenth century, Thomas Edison finally invented an incandescent light bulb that could be used with a battery to make the first flashlight. This has proved indispensable for children everywhere to ward off imaginary monsters in the dark (such as Frankenstein). The moral here is that the development of any technology tends to create its own demons which must then be dealt with. And even though the flashlight should have ended the story, there are still Galvani acolytes trying to figure out a way to resurrect the dead. So much for progress!