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The History of Batteries

Posted by Michael Wenger on


The history of batteries is often debated among scientists due to ancient artifacts found in the middle east. One thing's for certain, the advances in battery technology in the last two centuries have had a tremendous impact on everything around us. Without battery technology, portable electronic systems, including your car, wouldn't exist!

The following batteries were all huge turning points and advancements in battery technology:

250 BC-224 AD Baghdad Battery

Battery Materials: Terracotta Pots, Copper Cylinder, Iron Nail, Acidic Juice

The Baghdad Battery was likely used to gold-plate silver objects between 250 BC and 224 AD! Although this hasn’t been proven, it’s often referred to as the earliest versions of batteries.

1749 Linked Capacitors

Battery Materials: Statically Charged Metal-Coated Glass

The American great Benjamin Franklin originally coined the term “battery” which he named the capacitors he used frequently for experiments. These capacitors were manually charged and discharged.

1800 Voltaic Pile

Battery Materials: Copper and Zinc Disks, Brine-Soaked Cardboard

Allesandro Volta created a device that stacked copper and zync disks on top of each other. Each disk was separated by a brine-soaked piece of cardboard for the electrolyte. This later became the Voltaic Pile. This battery allowed for constant stable current and a long life while it wasn’t being used. The Voltaic Pile was the first true battery.

1800’s Trough Battery

Battery Materials: Horizontal Voltaic Pile

The original Voltaic Pile had flaws. Often times the weight of the metal disks would push the brine out of the cardboard and cause the battery to short out. William Cruickshank built a voltaic pile horizontally, so the weight of the disks would no longer squeeze the cardboard, thus avoiding shorts.

1844 Grove Cell

Battery Materials: Zinc, Sulfuric Acid, Platinum, Nitric Acid, Ceramic Pottery Material

The Grove Cell proved to be many times better than the Voltaic Pile in terms of current and longevity. However, the Grove Cell gave off toxic gases and was replaced in the 1860’s with Gravity Cell batteries.

1859 Lead-Acid Battery (Rechargeable Batteries)

Battery Materials: Lead, Lead Dioxide, Sulfuric Acid

The Lead-Acid battery was the first rechargeable battery. All batteries to this point would be spent when the devices would no longer produce chemical reactions. By passing current through the lead-acid battery, the chemical reaction properties would be returned. Lead-Acid batteries are still used in applications all around us, including sealed lead acid batteries in automobiles.

1860 Gravity Cell

Battery Materials: Glass Jar, Copper, Zinc, Distilled Water, Copper

This seemingly crude device was used for nearly a century by American telegraph companies. The limited-resistance design allowed for the batteries to last a very long time. Even more attractive was the ability to replace various pieces of the gravity cell to return it to new condition.

1866 Leclanché cell

Battery Materials: Wooden Box, Zinc, Manganese Cathode, Ammonium Chloride

This battery powered early phones. These wooden boxes would supply power to your phone, but only for a short period of time. Long conversations would cause the battery to become resistant to steady current flow.

1896 Zinc-Carbon Cell (Dry Cell Batteries)

Battery Materials: Ammonium Chloride, Plaster, Zinc Chloride

This battery revolutionized batteries as we know them. Using a paste, instead of a liquid, these batteries were durable and able to be transported. The plaster acted as a reactant as well as a bonding agent. These batteries were sold to the public, and the flashlight was invented because of it.

1899 NiCd, (Alkaline Batteries)

Battery Materials: Nickel, Cadmium, Potassium Hydroxide, Alkaline

These alkaline batteries were invented in Sweden, and didn’t reach the United States until 1946! These batteries were expensive, but were better suited for many applications than dry-cell batteries.

1959 (Common Alkaline Batteries)

Battery Materials: Zinc, Alkaline Electrolytic, Manganese Dioxide

In 1959, zinc-carbon batteries were converted to use manganese and powdered zinc, which are still the alkaline batteries we use today.

1970’s Nickel Hydrogen Battery

Battery Materials: Nickel, Hydrogen, Potassium

These batteries were developed for use in large communications devices such as satellites. The first use of the Nickel Hydrogen Battery was on the US Navy’s Navigation technology satellite-2.

1970’s-80’s Lithium & Lithium-Ion Batteries

Battery Materials: Various Materials

Lithium is theoretically the ideal metal for batteries. It’s very low density, lightweight, and has the best electrochemical potential. These batteries are also revolutionary because the internal materials can be wrapped in flexible casing. This allows for batteries to be shaped to fit a specific machine or device.

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