The story of the invention of batteries nicely illustrates how an unexpected observation can stimulate curious minds and lead to new inventions with world-changing results.
It begins in 1780 with Luigi Galvani dissecting a frog attached to a brass hook. When he touched the frog’s leg with an iron scalpel it twitched. Galvani’s friend, Alessandro Volta, thought that it might have something to do with a moist connector (the dead frog) joining two different metals. That led to further experiments, and in 1800 Volta came up with the first true chemical battery, the voltaic pile.
The first voltaic pile comprised discs of copper and zinc separated by cloth or cardboard that was soaked in salty water. With multiple units stacked upon each other it could only produce power for less than an hour. However, it provided a steady voltage and made important contributions to new experiments and discoveries, including the electrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen.
In 1836 British chemist John Daniell developed a more practical battery. It used two different electrolytes separated by a porous ceramic barrier. This allowed ions to pass through the barrier without the electrolyte solutions mixing. The Daniell cell played a key role in the development of the telegraph networks that kicked off the communications revolution. The Daniell cell was also used to define the unit of electromotive force, fittingly named the Volt.
Improvements occurred throughout the 19th century, and a big step was made in 1886 when German Carl Gassner patented the first dry cell battery. As the name suggests, these don’t contain liquid so can’t spill over, they can be used in any orientation and don’t require any maintenance. With slight modification they went into mass production in 1896, opening up the development of portable electrical devices including torches. Zinc-carbon batteries are still being made in large numbers today.
From the voltaic pile to the zinc-carbon battery, all were non-rechargeable. The first rechargeable battery dates to 1859 when Gaston Planté’s developed the lead-acid battery. Its first commercial use was to power the lights in train carriages while stopped at stations. Today, lead-acid batteries sit under the bonnet of nearly every car in the world.
The Battery Age
The basics haven’t changed much, but battery developments continue to deliver more power, longer life and reduced cost, helping to make us ever more dependent on these marvels of chemistry and materials science.
Batteries are, and will continue to be, a major defining technology of our age, and to think that we owe it all to some dead frogs and the curious minds of Galvani and Volta.
Bring Life To Old Batteries
For businesses, we offer battery collection and recycling programs Australia-wide. We can also help you recycle lighting and e-waste.
Call us on 1300 32 62 92, or fill out the form and one of our recycling specialists will be happy to design a recycling program specifically for you.