In what happens to be perhaps one of the most interesting bits of information I have so far come across in my endeavor to find all I can possibly know about batteries, I have discovered that the genesis of our little Energizing buddies dips much deeper than I had previously thought. In fact, mounting evidence shows the possibility that batteries in and of themselves are so ancient, so unbelievably old that they predate Volta’s ‘modern’ 1800 invention of the ‘Voltaic pile’ by more than a millenium! Hard to believe, but true!
Although speculation still exists as to whether or not the so called ‘Baghdad Battery’ was really a battery, it appears to be as such. Found in the village of Khuyut Rabbou’a, near Baghdad, Iraq, and consisting of 5 inch tall terracotta pots containing a rolled up copper cylinder enveloping an iron rod isolated by bitumen stoppers, it is believed that wine, lemon juice, or vinegar may have been poured into the pots and used as an electrolyte to generate current; possibly used for ancient electroplating. Now how cool is that? If the current dating on the pots is correct (224-640) then our batteries may be far from a modern invention indeed! If you thought the stuff in your Grandparents attic was rustic, think again!
This is, however, not meant to pull Alessandro Volta right out of the spotlight. Far from it. Without the Italian physicist we would quite possibly still be in the dark today, literally!
Born, Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Gerolamo Umberto Volta (say that 10 times fast!), the inventor of the forerunner of our modern day fuel cells had his beginnings as a physics professor at the Royal School in Como. Credited for improving and popularizing a device that produced a static charge (called the electrophorus) in 1775, Volta went on to studying the chemistry of gases, discovering methane in 1776, and isolating it in 1778.
In 1800 Volta invented the voltaic pile. Consisting of pairs of discs of zinc and copper stacked on top of each other, and separated by either cardboard or cloth soaked in an electrolyte (brine). Though early attempts produced such a weak voltage as to be unable to produce a spark, after much experimentation Volta discovered silver and zinc produced the most current.
Though Volta’s original models were flawed (short-circuits caused by the electrolyte leaking among them) they were solved shortly thereafter by the invention of the Trough battery, in which William Cruickshank improved upon Volta’s original design by arranging the plates in a trough horizontally, rather than the vertical column. Fixing the leaking problem and making it possible for this wonderful invention to continue on it’s course!
Fast forwards a century or so, and Voila! You have our modern battery! Well, ok. Not exactly but you get the drift.
So the next time you find yourself thinking that batteries (and subsequently electricity) are a modern invention, think again.
It’s actually pretty amazing how much things you find have more antiquated roots than what the general consensus seems to be. I for one certainly didn’t think that batteries were old by any means, let alone quite possibly over a millennium!