Batteries are now a commonplace feature of everyday life, at home, in the car and on the move. From the tiniest batteries that power our wristwatches to the rechargeable versions that keep our smartphones operating 24 hours a day, batteries are an essential component for an endless array of electronic items upon which we have come to rely.
While the development of electronics has dominated the last 200 years – and only become an integral part of daily life in the last 70 – the earliest battery to be discovered actually dates from a time long before Alessandro Volta first published details of his invention which was to revolutionise industry and manufacturing.
The ‘Baghdad Battery’
Known as the ‘Baghdad Battery’, the 2,000 year-old sealed clay jar, consisting of a central iron rod surrounded by copper sheeting, was uncovered by railway construction workers close to Iraq’s capital in 1936. When replicas were tested by scientists to determine the purpose of the find, they discovered that the contraption was capable of producing up to two volts of electricity, possibly in order to solder gold onto silver articles.
While the ‘Baghdad Battery’ is the earliest known example of a rudimentary battery, some scholars believe that the Sumerians, who lived in Southern Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago, also experimented with similar inventions, although little in the way of physical evidence remains.
The Voltaic Pile
In 1800, Italian physicist Alessandro Volta perfected the Voltaic Pile, an arrangement of alternating copper and zinc discs separated by brine-soaked cardboard – the first practical way of producing an electrical current. Volta’s invention was notable as it was the first ‘wet cell battery’ that was able to produce a steady, uninterrupted current of electricity, setting up the future development of commercially available batteries.
The Daniell Cell
While Volta’s invention was remarkable for its ability to produce a steady current, its usefulness was hindered by the fact that the current wouldn’t last for long. In 1836, English scientist John F. Daniell invented a more reliable battery, the Daniell Cell, that was able to produce just over one volt of electricity for a more sustained period of time than Volta’s design. The Daniell Cell was able to power doorbells, telephones and telegraphs and remained a popular domestic choice for over a century.
The rechargeable battery
Today, rechargeable batteries are the mainstay for a wide variety of electrical items including mobile phones, cameras, laptops and MP3 players. The earliest example of this type of battery was invented in 1859 by Frenchman Gaston Plante, who created the first lead-acid battery that could be recharged – in fact, the same sort of battery predominantly used in modern cars.
The alkaline storage battery
While today’s commonplace modern batteries evolved from the early work of electronics pioneers such as Franklin, Galvani and Volta, their convenient form and ability to store considerable amounts of energy depended on Thomas Edison’s development of the alkaline battery in 1901. Edison’s work paved the way for the modern battery that plays an irreplaceable part in everyday electronics, both at home and in the workplace.
With wireless battery charging likely to be the next major development, potentially heralding the death of the disposable cell, it is certain that the evolution of this everyday household component is far from complete.