Luckily for us, we don’t have to live in such a world thanks to batteries that give us a mobile source of power that makes all modern conveniences possible. Today, batteries are all around us and run our power drills, electric razors, smoke detectors, alarm clocks, and even smartphones and laptop that you use at the moment to read this article.
In fact, batteries are so ubiquitous that they are almost invisible and we often take them for granted. However, they are one of the most important inventions with a long history – a history which we will share with you today.
But first, let’s learn a little bit more about batteries.
A battery is basically a device or an electric cell that stores chemical energy that is converted into electricity. And while there are different types of batteries, the basic concept remains the same – when you connect a device to a battery, a reaction occurs and produces electrical energy (also known as an electrochemical reaction). Electricity is the flow of electrons through a conductive path, such as a wire. This path is known as a circuit.
Batteries consist of three basic parts: a cathode (+), an anode (-) and the electrolyte. An anode and a cathode (the negative and positive sides at either end of a battery) are connected to two different types of metal plates (electrodes), which are immersed in chemicals inside the battery. These chemicals react with the metals and cause excess electrons to build up on an anode (-) and produce a shortage of electrons on a cathode (+).
The difference in the number of electrons between a cathode and an anode is called voltage. The goal of the voltage is to even out the teams by pushing the excess electrons from an anode to a cathode. However, the chemicals in the battery prevent the electrons from going between the electrodes, so they need to find an alternative way.
This alternative way is “created” when we connect a battery to a circuit (for example, when we turn the light on) and the excess electrons flow out the battery via the negative terminal through the circuit and come back into the battery via the positive terminal. This particular flow of electrons creates electricity.
Sounds simple, right? Well, it actually took us many years to create today’s batteries, and it all started with a frog.
The History of Batteries – A Timeline
1786 – Even though in 1748, Benjamin Franklin first coined the term “battery” to describe an array of charged glass plates, we had to wait another forty years for a groundbreaking discovery.
In 1786, the Italian physicist Luigi Galvan was very close to discovering the principle of the battery, but managed to pave the way to the idea of the battery. Believe it or not, it all happened during an experiment involving a frog. While cutting a frog’s leg, Galvani's steel scalpel touched the frog’s leg and the leg twitched. He thought that this reaction happened due to “animal electricity”.
1800 – By 1800, Alessandro Volta created the first wet cell battery. The battery was created by piling up layers of zinc, silver and paper in salt. These layers were assembled into a tall pile (the voltaic pile), without paper between silver and zinc, until the desired voltage was reached. This was the first battery that produced consistent and stable current, but couldn’t produce electricity for a longer period of time (an hour max).
1820 – As we already said, the Voltaic Pile failed to deliver currents for long periods of time. However, in 1820, John Frederic Daniell, a famous British chemist, was able to overcome this problem by creating the Daniell Cell. It was the first battery that incorporated mercury to reduce corrosion.
1859 – Until 1859, all batteries were primary cells and they permanently drained once the chemical reactions were spent. Or in plain English, we couldn't recharge the batteries. However, in 1859 the world welcomed the first lead acid batteries that could be recharged.
Raymond Planté created a cell by rolling up two strips of lead sheet that were separated by rubber strips forming, and everything was immersed into dilute sulfuric acid. This meant that the battery was able to supply energy for a longer period of time.
1866 – Georges Leclanché, a well-known French scientist, invented the carbon-zinc battery, which is still used today. The battery was composed of manganese dioxide cathode, a zinc anode and ammonium chloride (as the electrolyte). A few years later, Leclanché started using a pastier version of electrolyte (known as a dry cell), which enabled longer shelf life and easier transportation.
1886 – There was another variation of a dry cell. In 1866, Carl Gassner was able to prolong the shelf life and improve the design. A year later, his batteries provided 1.5 volts.
1881 – Camille Faure managed to improve the battery’s ability to supply current and formed the basis of today’s lead acid battery that is suitable for autos.
1899 – A Swedish scientist Waldemar Junger invented the very first NiCD (nickel-cadmium) battery. It was a rechargeable battery that used alkaline electrolyte and provided the ability to produce better energy density.
1903 – Thomas Edison, a world-famous scientist, invented an alkaline cell with nickelic oxide as the cathode, the iron as the anode and potassium hydroxide for the electrolyte. The Edison battery was initially aimed for the automobile industry but found better use in the railroad and industrial market due to its ability to survive uncharged and overcharged periods.
1893 – 1909 – During the era of Thomas Edison, two Swedish scientists made their significant contribution to science as well. Berg and Jungner invented the nickel-cadmium cell that used cadmium instead of the iron. As a result, their battery was able to self-discharge itself to a lesser degree, operated better at lower temperatures and needed less time to fully charge. Using the same chemistry, but in a different format, the nickel-cadmium batteries are still manufactured and used today.
1949 – The alkaline battery was invented in 1949 by an engineer Lewis Urry who worked for the Eveready Battery Company. It was able to supply greater energy at higher currents and offered more advantaged than the zinc-carbon batteries. Today, the same batteries are being used, but they just increased the energy storage.
1964 – The term “Duracell” was introduced as a brand, from “durable cells” – and the rest is history.
Could you imagine a modern world without batteries where everything that uses electricity has to be plugged in? Cell phones, hearing aids, flashlights and every portable device would be tethered to electrical outlets, while cars couldn't be able to start with the simple turn of a key. The wires would be everywhere, creating an unsightly mess and a safety hazard. Simply put – there would be chaos!