When was the battery invented?
Isidor Buchmann, President
Cadex Electronics Inc.
One of the most remarkable and novel discoveries in the last
400 years has been electricity. You may ask, “Has electricity
been around that long?” The answer is yes, and perhaps much
longer. But the practical use of electricity has only been
at our disposal since the mid-to late 1800s, and in a limited
way at first. At the world exposition in Paris in 1900, for
example, one of the main attractions was an electrically lit
bridge over the river Seine.
The earliest method of generating electricity occurred by
creating a static charge. In 1660, Otto von Guericke constructed
the first electrical machine that consisted of a large sulphur
globe which, when rubbed and turned, attracted feathers and
small pieces of paper. Guericke was able to prove that the
sparks generated were truly electrical.
The first suggested use of static electricity was the so-called
“electric pistol”. Invented by Alessandro Volta (1745-1827),
an electrical wire was placed in a jar filled with methane
gas. By sending an electrical spark through the wire, the
jar would explode.
Volta then thought of using this invention to provide long
distance communications, albeit only addressing one Boolean
bit. An iron wire supported by wooden poles was to be strung
from Como to Milan, Italy. At the receiving end, the wire
would terminate in a jar filled with methane gas. On command,
an electrical spark is sent by wire that would detonate the
electric pistol to signal a coded event. This communications
link was never built.
Figure 1: Alessandro Volta, inventor
of the electric battery.
Volta’s discovery of the decomposition
of water by an electrical current laid the foundation of electrochemistry.
© Cadex Electronics Inc.
In 1791, while working at Bologna University, Luigi Galvani
discovered that the muscle of a frog contracted when touched
by a metallic object. This phenomenon became known as animal
electricity — a misnomer, as the theory was later disproven.
Prompted by these experiments, Volta initiated a series of
experiments using zinc, lead, tin or iron as positive plates.
Copper, silver, gold or graphite were used as negative plates.
The next stage of generating electricity was through electrolysis.
Volta discovered in 1800 that a continuous flow of electrical
force was generated when using certain fluids as conductors
to promote a chemical reaction between the metals or electrodes.
This led to the invention of the first voltaic cell, better
know as the battery. Volta discovered further that the voltage
would increase when voltaic cells were stacked on top of each
Figure 2: Four variations of Volta’s
Silver and zinc disks are separated
with moist paper. ©
Cadex Electronics Inc.
In the same year, Volta released his discovery of a continuous
source of electricity to the Royal Society of London. No longer
were experiments limited to a brief display of sparks that
lasted a fraction of a second. A seemingly endless stream
of electric current was now available.
France was one of the first nations to officially recognize
Volta’s discoveries. At the time, France was approaching the
height of scientific advancements and new ideas were welcomed
with open arms to support the political agenda. By invitation,
Volta addressed the Institute of France in a series of lectures
at which Napoleon Bonaparte was present as a member of the
Figure 3: Volta’s experimentations
at the French National Institute.
Volta’s discoveries so impressed
the world that in November 1800, he was invited by the French
National Institute to lectures in which Napoleon Bonaparte
participated. Later, Napoleon himself helped with the experiments,
drawing sparks from the battery, melting a steel wire, discharging
an electric pistol and decomposing water into its elements.
© Cadex Electronics Inc.
New discoveries were made when Sir Humphry Davy, inventor
of the miner’s safety lamp, installed the largest and most
powerful electric battery in the vaults of the Royal Institution
of London. He connected the battery to charcoal electrodes
and produced the first electric light. As reported by witnesses,
his voltaic arc lamp produced “the most brilliant ascending
arch of light ever seen.”
Davy's most important investigations were devoted to electrochemistry.
Following Galvani's experiments and the discovery of the voltaic
cell, interest in galvanic electricity had become widespread.
Davy began to test the chemical effects of electricity in
1800. He soon found that by passing electrical current through
some substances, these substances decomposed, a process later
called electrolysis. The generated voltage was directly related
to the reactivity of the electrolyte with the metal. Evidently,
Davy understood that the actions of electrolysis and the voltaic
cell were the same.
In 1802, Dr. William Cruickshank designed the first electric
battery capable of mass production. Cruickshank had arranged
square sheets of copper, which he soldered at their ends,
together with sheets of zinc of equal size. These sheets were
placed into a long rectangular wooden box that was sealed
with cement. Grooves in the box held the metal plates in position.
The box was then filled with an electrolyte of brine, or watered
Figure 4: Cruickshank and the first
William Cruickshank, an English
chemist, built a battery of electric cells by joining zinc
and copper plates in a wooden box filled with electrolyte.
This flooded design had the advantage of not drying out with
use and provided more energy than Volta’s disc arrangement.
© Cadex Electronics Inc.
The third method of generating electricity was discovered
relatively late — electricity through magnetism. In 1820,
André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836) had noticed that wires carrying
an electric current were at times attracted to one another,
while at other times they were repelled.
In 1831, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) demonstrated how a copper
disc was able to provide a constant flow of electricity when
revolved in a strong magnetic field. Faraday, assisting Davy
and his research team, succeeded in generating an endless
electrical force as long as the movement between a coil and
magnet continued. The electric generator was invented. This
process was then reversed and the electric motor was discovered.
Shortly thereafter, transformers were developed that could
convert electricity to a desired voltage. In 1833, Faraday
established the foundation of electrochemistry with Faraday's
Law, which describes the amount of reduction that occurs in
an electrolytic cell.
In 1836, John F. Daniell, an English chemist, continued with
the research of the electro-chemical battery and developed
an improved cell that produced a steadier current than Volta's
device. Until then, all batteries had been composed of primary
cells, meaning that they could not be recharged. In 1859,
the French physician Gaston Platé invented the first rechargeable
battery. This secondary battery was based on lead acid chemistry,
a system that is still used today.
Figure 5: History of battery development.
The battery may be much older. It
is believed that the Parthians who ruled Baghdad (ca. 250
bc) used batteries to electroplate silver. The Egyptians are
said to have electroplated antimony onto copper over 4300 years
In 1899, Waldmar Jungner from Sweden invented the nickel-cadmium
battery, which used nickel for the positive electrode and
cadmium for the negative. Two years later, Edison produced
an alternative design by replacing cadmium with iron. Due
to high material costs compared to dry cells or lead acid
storage batteries, the practical applications of the nickel-cadmium
and nickel-iron batteries were limited.
Toward the end of the 1800s, giant generators and transformers
were built. Transmission lines were installed and electricity
was made available to humanity to produce light, heat and
movement. In the early twentieth century, the invention of
the vacuum tube enabled generating controlled signals, amplifications
and sound. Soon thereafter, radio was invented, which made
wireless communication possible.
It was not until Shlecht and Ackermann invented the sintered
pole plate in 1932 when profound improvements were achieved.
These advancements were reflected in higher load currents
and improved longevity. The sealed nickel-cadmium battery,
as we know it toady, became only available when Neumann succeeded
in completely sealing the cell in 1947.
From the early days on, humanity became dependent on electricity,
a product without which our technological advancements would
not have been possible. With the increased need for mobility,
people moved to portable power storage — first for wheeled
applications, then for portable and finally wearable use.
As awkward and unreliable as the early batteries may have
been, our descendants may one day look at today’s technology
in a similar way to how we view our predecessors’ clumsy experiments
of 200 years ago.
This article contains excerpts from the second
edition book entitled Batteries in a Portable World — A Handbook
on Rechargeable Batteries for Non-Engineers. In the book,
Mr. Buchmann evaluates the battery in everyday use and explains
their strength and weaknesses in laymen’s terms. The 300-page
book is available from Cadex Electronics Inc. through firstname.lastname@example.org, tel. 604-231-7777 or most bookstores.
For additional information on battery technology visit www.buchmann.ca.
About the Author
Isidor Buchmann is the founder and CEO of Cadex Electronics
Inc., in Richmond (Vancouver) British Columbia, Canada. Mr.
Buchmann has a background in radio communications and has
studied the behavior of rechargeable batteries in practical,
every day applications for two decades. The author of many
articles and books on battery maintenance technology, Mr.
Buchmann is a well-known speaker who has delivered technical
papers and presentations at seminars and conferences around
About the Company
Cadex Electronics Inc. is a world leader in the design and
manufacture of advanced battery analyzers and chargers. Their
award-winning products are used to prolong battery life in
wireless communications, emergency services, mobile computing,
avionics, biomedical, broadcasting and defense. Cadex products
are sold in over 100 countries.