Learn More! History of Batteries [Knowledge]

Have you ever wondered where batteries come from? Want to know who invented the very first battery? Today’s batteries are nothing like the first batteries ever invented. Keep on reading to find out the history of batteries and how they have changed into what we know today.

Benjamin Franklin’s Role in Batteries

When we think of Benjamin Franklin we think of electricity in the form of lighting hitting a key on a kite string. What we don’t think about with him is batteries. Interesting to note though is that he was one of the very first people to use the term battery. In 1749, he first used the term battery in an attempt to label a set of capacitors he was using during his various experiments on electricity. Benjamin Franklin’s capacitors were actually glass panels coated with metal. A static generator charged the panels and then they were discharged by touching the panel with an electrode. Linking the two panels together in the form of a “battery” gave the panels the ability to emit a stronger discharge. The term battery was used to describe “two or more similar objects functioning together.”

Who Invented The First Battery

While we now know that Benjamin Franklin first used the term battery, we know it was not to describe what we consider a battery. So, if Benjamin Franklin didn’t invent the battery then who did? The answer to that question is Alessandro Volta. Before the first battery was invented Alessandro Volta’s friend, Luigi Galvani thought he had discovered something he called “animal electricity” in 1780 when he was dissecting a frog hooked to a brass hook. The frog’s leg moved when the iron scalpel touched its leg.

Volta knew the leg didn’t produce the electricity. Volta correctly assumed that the electricity was caused by two metals joined together with a moist intermediary. However, he still had to prove his theory which he did through experiments and he published those works in 1791. It wasn’t until 1800 that Volta invented the first real battery, which is now known as a voltaic pile.

Understanding The Voltaic Pile

Alessandro Volta

Alessandro’s voltaic pile featured pairs of discs piled on each other. Discs were made from copper and zinc and were separated by a piece of either cardboard or cloth that had been soaked in brine. Volta used copper and zinc as he found through his experiments of various metals that they provided the best results. This pile of discs was able to produce a stable current of continuous electricity. Even better was that very little of the charge was lost if the voltaic pile sat unused.

Volta believed that the results he achieved were from the two different materials touching each other, also known as contact tension. He did not think the results he was achieving were due to chemical reactions. Because of his belief, he thought the corrosion of the zinc plates was some kind of unrelated flaw. Although nobody could figure out how to prevent this corrosion they did discover it was related to the battery’s ability to produce a current because the stronger the current the faster the zinc plates corroded.

Although the voltaic pile worked it had its share of problems too. One of the biggest issues with the voltaic pile was short-circuiting because of the brine leaking from the cloth or cardboard. The brine leaked because the discs compressing the cloth or cardboard were heavy. To solve this problem William Cruickshank laid everything down inside a box, which created the trough battery. Volta created the Crown of Cups to solve the problem, but although more efficient than the voltaic piles it wasn’t as popular.

The short battery life, you were lucky to get an hour of use, was another major problem with the voltaic pile. The short battery life was caused by polarization and local action. Local action, which caused the zinc to degrade over time, was solved by William Sturgeon in 1835 by using amalgamated zinc. Polarization is counteracted in modern batteries through various measures. Although no longer used today, voltaic piles made future experiments and discoveries possible. Without them, we wouldn’t have batteries as we know them today.

Looking at the First Practical Batteries

If it wasn’t for Volta and his voltaic piles the first practical batteries never would have been invented. Each of the practical batteries improved upon the version found before it. Here is a quick look at the practical batteries and how they came to be.

Daniel Cell: Invented by John Frederic Daniell. He discovered a way to solve the polarization problem (hydrogen bubbles) in Volta’s voltaic piles. He did this by using a second electrolyte that consumed the hydrogen produced by the brine-soaked cloths. The Daniel Cell was invented in 1836; it was safer and less corrosive, plus it provides a longer and more reliable current than voltaic piles.

Bird’s Cell: This was an improved version of the Daniel Cell and was invented in 1837 by Golding Bird. His improvement was to add a plaster of Paris barrier to keep the solutions separate from each other.

Porous Pot Cell: This version of the Daniel Cell was invented by John Dancer in 1838. The Porous Pot version used a zinc anode in a porous earthenware pot filled with a zinc sulfate solution. The pot was then placed inside a copper can filled with a copper sulfate solution. The barrier formed by the porous pot allowed ions to pass through but prevented the solutions from mixing together.

Gravity Cell: Invented by Callaud in the 1860s the gravity cell was a simpler version of the Daniel cell and got rid of the porous barrier. By eliminating the porous barrier the battery was able to produce a stronger current because there was not as much internal resistance. The stronger current made the gravity cell the preferred choice and was used until the 1950s on both the American and British telegraph networks.

Poggendorff Cell: In 1842 the German scientist Johann Poggendorff was able to eliminate the need for the porous pot by using dilute sulphuric acid and chromic acid that was physically mixed together. His cell produced 1.9 volts and was able to produce a consistent current, but wasn’t used for long because of a few flaws.

Grove Cell: Invented by William Grove in 1839 the Grove cell used a porous barrier to separate the sulfuric acid dipped zinc anode and the nitric acid dipped platinum cathode. The Grove Cell provided almost twice the voltage as the Daniel Cell and provided a higher current, but it also gave off poisonous fumes during operation and rapidly lost voltage.

Dun Cell: This was invented by Alfred Dunn in 1885. This cell used iron and carbon cells that were filled with nitro-muriatic acid. The carbon cells used strong or slightly diluted nitro-muriatic acid, while the iron cells required the acid to be very diluted.

Introduction of The Rechargeable Battery

 rechargeable battery

All of the batteries we discussed above only lasted as long as the chemical reactions lasted. What this meant was that once the chemical reactions were done they battery no longer provided power. It wasn’t until 1859 that the first “rechargeable” battery was invented. Although you need to understand that this “rechargeable” battery is nothing like the rechargeable batteries of today.

In 1859, Gaston Plante created the lead-acid battery. This was the first rechargeable battery as it had the ability to be recharged through a reverse current passing through the battery. The lead-acid battery used a lead anode and a lead dioxide cathode that were both submerged in sulfuric acid. The electrodes reacted with the acid to release electrons that were then consumed by the lead dioxide to produce a current. This chemical reaction was able to be reversed giving this method the ability to recharge the battery.

Although Plante’s batteries were an improvement on previous batteries, they still had some issues. Perhaps the biggest issue was they were heavy and bulky for the amount of energy they could hold. In 1881, Camille Faure improved Plante’s original battery designed to make a lead-acid battery that was easier to mass produce. Lead-acid batteries are still in use today in areas where weight is not a primary concern, such as car batteries. The basic principle behind the lead-acid battery has not changed, although it has been improved slightly over the years. In the 1970s the sealed version of lead-acid batteries was released which allowed the battery to be used in different positions without fear of leaking.

Next Comes the Leclanche Cell

Georges Leclanche invented a battery that used a zinc anode with a manganese dioxide cathode. The cathode was wrapped in a porous material and then dipped into an ammonium chloride solution. This battery was able to provide 1.4 volts and was very successful in electric bell work, telegraphy, and signaling. The Leclanche cell was used to power early telephones but came with some problems. The cell couldn’t sustain a current for a very long time, so as the battery ran down the conversation became nearly inaudible. The battery was only good for intermittent use as the reactions reversed themselves while the battery was idle.

Introduction of The first Dry Cell

 dry cell

Although the Leclanche cell is referred to as a dry cell, the first true dry cell wasn’t invented until 1886 by Carl Gassner. Gassner created a variant of the Leclanche cell and was able to secure a patent for it in both Germany and the US. The dry cell battery that Gassner invented mixed ammonium chloride and plaster of Paris together to form a paste. To extend the shelf life of the paste a small amount of zinc chloride was added. A manganese dioxide cathode was dipped into the paste and then both were sealed in a zinc shell.

The zinc shell acted as the anode of the battery. Unlike wet cells, Gassner’s version of the dry cell battery could be used in any orientation as it didn’t leak, plus it didn’t require any kind of maintenance. This dry cell had the ability to produce 1.5 volts. In 1896, the National Carbon Company improved upon Gassner’s dry cell by using coiled cardboard in place of the plaster of Paris. This improved version was the first battery to be mass produced for the masses to use and lead directly to the invention of the flashlight. This battery eventually became known as the zinc-carbon battery and it still manufactured today.

The NiCd Was The First Alkaline Battery

The very first alkaline battery was invented in 1899 by a Swedish scientist named Waldemar Junger. The nickel-cadmium or NiCd battery is a rechargeable battery that uses both nickel and cadmium electrodes placed in a potassium hydroxide solution. The NiCd battery got named the first alkaline battery because it was the first of its kind to use an alkaline electrolyte. The alkaline battery was commercialized in Sweden in 1910 but didn’t become popular in the United States until 1946.

Batteries of The 20th Century and Beyond

In 1899, the nickel-iron battery was also invented, but because even though it was cheaper Junger didn’t patent it because it couldn’t be sealed and the charging process wasn’t nearly as efficient as the NiCd battery. It wasn’t until 1903 that Thomas Edison picked up the design and had it patented. His goal was to create a substitute for the lead-acid battery, something that was lighter and more durable. He ran into problems with his first model because of its short battery life and it was prone to leaking. Seven years later though he did succeed and his batteries were used to power mines in lamps and as back up batteries for railroad crossing signals.

NiMH battery

The zinc-carbon battery was the most popular battery choice until 1955. Zinc-carbon batteries had a low battery life, which hurt their overall sales. In 1955, National Carbon Company gave Lewis Urry the job of figuring out a way to extend the life of the zinc-carbon battery. However, Urry determined that although they were more expensive the alkaline battery held the best promise of a longer life. His idea was to use a powdered zinc to give the anode a greater surface. His batteries were a success and hit the market in 1959.

In the 1970s the nickel-hydrogen battery was introduced for commercial communication as an energy-storage subsystem. In 1989, the nickel-metal hydride batteries (NiMH) were introduced to consumers. These batteries were a variation of the nickel-hydrogen battery. They also offered a longer lifespan and were less damaging to the environment compared to the NiCd batteries. Even better was their lifespan continued to increase as manufacturers tried out different alloys.

Inventors began experimenting with using lithium for batteries in 1912, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that lithium batteries first entered the market. In the 1980s, three very important developments were made to lithium batteries. In 1980, John Goodenough introduced the LiCoO2 cathode and Rachid Yazami discovered a graphite anode with a solid electrolyte. In 1981, two Japanese chemists discovered polyacene and determined it was an effective anode for a liquid electrolyte. These three discoveries led to the creation of the lithium-ion battery in 1985, which Sony commercialized in 1991.

History of Batteries Final Thoughts

It is interesting to see how batteries have evolved over time. Perhaps even more interesting to note is that even though batteries have evolved over time, the basic principles have still remained the same. In learning about the history of batteries it is interesting to discover that without the creation of the battery we would not have the flashlight as the invention of the first dry cell led directly to the invention of the flashlight. Please take a look at our other Best Flashlight Buyers Guides for all your flashlight needs.