A Quick History of the Battery

[Colin] tells us it all started with [Benjamin Franklin]’s battery of capacitors. It was a bunch of leyden jars hooked together in series and there wasn’t even chemistry involved yet, but the nomenclature stuck and it wasn’t long before it evolved into the word we use today.

For the word to change, things got chemical. [Alessandro Volta] introduces his voltaic pile. Once scientists latched onto the idea of a stable reaction giving a steady stream of magic pixies for them to play with, it wasn’t long before the great minds were turning their attention to improving this new technology.

In the classic game of one-upmanship loved by technical people all over, we quickly skip forward to the modern era. An era where no man is unburdened with the full weight of constant communication. It’s all thanks to a technology that’s theoretically unchanged from that first pile. Video after the break.

36 thoughts on “A Quick History of the Battery

  1. Now if only we could get battery that lasts a long time. There’s one that’s been in continuous use for over 170 years and no one knows how it’s made, and no one will dare to touch it until it stops working.

    1. we dont know exactly how it was made but we have a pretty good idea, that battery is a dry pile type battery, a search for a zamboni pile will give a lot more information.

      we also know that the oxford pile, which i think is what you are talking about, doesnt show any surprising energy density, only longevity and that is almost certainly a consequence of dry pile construction.

    2. Oh really, proffering myth & mystery for that, there’s negligible of both…

      Though there is some interesting mystery re the large ceramic urn batteries the
      Babylonians employed ~ 2500 years ago, ostensibly for copper/gold plating, they
      were the size of a domestic recycling plastic bin. One wonders if they stopped there &
      didn’t investigate electro-magnetism given they had to deal with sizable currents
      such as in the event of entertaining shorts etc But I digress…

      Re the ~ 170yr old cell, the key issue is the power produced, all within the bounds of
      the electro-chemistry in respect of reactants, interstitial interfaces & reaction dynamics etc.

      ie The power output is negligible (for the mass) in comparison with contemporary tech
      & there may also be an element of regenerative re thermals/nucleonic too – which of
      course should not be dismissed and worthy of investigation by whatever best minimal
      intrusive means possible & where feasible introduced experimentally into modern
      configurations according to materials compatibility etc

      BTW: I understand there are a set of lead/suphuric acid ceramic separator batteries
      from subs of the 2nd world war which are in Australia and still operating at almost full
      capacity. These are also large and their design although simple allows for easy in situ
      maintenance re electrodes and fluid swap etc… Nothing to stop them being augmented
      with current tech despite lead, easy to secure, easy to build, components very cheap :D

      Go figure :shrug:

    3. In Romania we have a working ‘Karpen Pile’ hosted by ‘Dimitrie Leonida National Technical Museum’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolae_Vasilescu-Karpen. Apparently, the Karpen Pile defies the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but I’m pretty sure in fact it doesn’t defies anything, because I saw the pile working when I was a kid.
      The museum curator told us the pile was continuously working for the last few decades. In 2010 it was already working for 60 years, so I guess today it is still working.

        1. Something is going on with that pile, but I guarantee you it does not violate the Second Law and it is not an overunity device. All of these exceptionally long-lasting batteries are generally riffs on the Zamboni pile, and like it produce very little current relative to the potential, but don’t break any known laws.

          1. My half a clue is the ability of platinum to take up other low atomic mass atoms, I think, so maybe it’s gradually depleting something stored in the platinum.

            Also could be slowly consuming the container.

    4. Just use a bigger battery. Except for a modern smartphone whereby Steve Jobs put out the edict of “one day on a charge brand new is good enough for EVERYONE”. Up until Samsung went the Apple route with the Galaxy S6, it was possible to get an extended battery like how I have on my Galaxy S3. If there was a huge breakthrough in battery chemistry, they’ll merely make the phones skinnier and you’ll still have to settle for one day on a charge.

      1. Here here, this so true.
        Remember when spray cans had a small cap? Then some marketer shrink came up with the bigger cap the same diameter as the can and taller too. When the old and new are placed side by side, it becomes imposible to sell the one with the smaller cap. With phones it’s the same just in the other direction. With the cans it generates extra waste, with the phones we can’t depend on a weekend or more untethered.
        If Panasonic can sell the toughbook, some one should make a similar phone. Cops and working people would love it.

    5. Right in front of me have a couple of Eveready No.509 6V lantern batteries from a 12 box of “expired” surplus material now more than 20 years ago and fabricated 5 years earlier.
      Still use them occasionally to test light bulbs and still read 5.96V

      Not 170 years but they all look as good as new. No leaks, rust or any sign of damage so it’s no surprise that something well done and maintained in good conditions last more than expected.

      A dry cell can last almost forever. As much as the anode when plucking just a few electrons at a time.

      1. Hmmm, I’ve had dry stored unused dry cells just up and leak on me only a few months out… but those are double cased, have a bunch of like plus size AAs in, inside what later was a plastic box but previously was tin with pressboard ends.

        Seen the price of those lately? Going on for $12 a piece here, the stupid thing is, there’s a store that generally puts a large flashlight on sale a couple of times a year for about 3 or 4 dollars with a free lantern battery… so you see the darn things all over at yard sales and in thrift shops, they never get another battery bought… though some of them look so fresh you wonder if an old fellow bought two just for the batts to stick in his old mantlepiece radio or something.

        You can make quite neat little PSUs inside the plastic case ones if you’ve got the misfortune to own equipment that demands one.

        1. I got one of those 6V “floating lantern” deals with the battery for $3; the “lantern” (really a spotlight) got retrofitted with a 14.8V Li-poly RC battery, a relay, and an aircraft landing light.

          No use for the battery, and I thought it was suspiciously light-weight, so I tore it down. That battery had 4 AAs wired together inside it, and the rest empty space. The full-capacity ones, of course, have 4 E cells (same diameter as D cells, but half again as long), which just fills the case; I’ve heard of some cheap ones having 4 D cells, and a spacer at the bottom.

          So what I’m saying is, if you want a plastic spotlight to put astonishing LED, halogen, or HID power in, go for it! But if you want a lantern battery for something, be real careful about those “bargain” deals. You can tell the real ones by weight.

          1. Although the one I tore down a few years back, with full size cells, and it was an in date one, lasted for my purpose only about twice as long as I’d figure a couple of modern PP3s would, so I cut into it. The cells in that looked like 1970s era tech, when the cheaper dry cells would give you half an hour of white light in an average flashlight then another half hour of dimmer yellow then they were done. So I could imagine that modern AAs might not give such a large capacity difference as you might think. Then I’d also expect the D cell version to actually be better.

          2. Welcome to marketing spin, of which you have reported an “in yer face” example, there
            are many far more subtle that play on neuro-linguistic programming aspects spread over
            time & in relation to combinatorial circumstances exploiting variance in mood which is also\
            subject to moderately easy manipulation…

            Religions have been doing it for millennia, governments have also been doing it for
            hundreds of years, the far more sophisticated variants most aren’t aware of in the last
            100 or so years exploiting basic operant conditioning overtly & implied along with repetition,
            sensory displacement & others even more subtle & more suitable to political issues and
            reaching the heights of competition in the lead up to the US elections, Clinton vs Trump (ugh)
            & he’s the worst by far with patterns matching those of Goebbels mid 20th century…

            Suffice to say, the battery tech commercialism plays on most peoples ignorance of
            batteries, energy, electrical issues etc – Its all over the place, spills into food business also
            and in many respects with even more sullying of what used to be precise technical terms.

            The counter is to ensure the public has a base education not just in the hard sciences such
            as physics but also psychology and recognition of cultural/societal provenance, ie history…

    6. It also only supplies billionths of an amp, thus, useless. This is the exact same sentiment of people who say “oh there is a light bulb thats been going for over 50 years!” yes it has. But at reduced power, and producing no usuable light.

      So do you want power/light? or something that never wears out but is actually totally useless.

      Pick 1.

      1. Then it would be correct to say “I’m changing the battery” singular when you have a number of single cells in a device, or it’s a PP3, but not if it’s a single cell, could pluralise it if there’s 2 PP3s I guess, or it happens to have 2 separate banks of single cells.

    1. Aw give it up and look at a dictionary: a battery is “one or more cells”. See that, one cell is a battery. A cell is a battery, a battery may be a cell, but not necessarily so. It has been defined this way for decades, at least in the world that I live in.

          1. Given it didn’t die out everywhere for years, and given that you wouldn’t have had much influence in where your parents decided to move to, you were under threat of it while it existed…. which I think it still probably does other than in western democracies… though it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s still legal in one or two.

  2. Zamboni pile? Is this a major ice resurfacing accident? I know at the pro games they use two Zambonis, but if there were more in the rink than that they were just asking for it. Also, where do you connect the leads after they crash together?

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