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How batteries changed the world

Sep 6, 2017 - 5min read

The 20th century has been hugely influenced by batteries and the devices they power. And our reliance on battery power seems certain to increase during the 21st century, be it in consumer electronics, the motor industry or the storage of renewable energy.

So it’s worth glancing over this brief chronology of the humble, cumbersome beginnings of a device that is likely to very much define our future.

1749 – term “battery” coined

US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin coined the term “battery” during his experiments with electricity, using it to refer to a set of linked capacitors coated in glass. They were charged using a static generator, then discharged by metal making contact with the electrode.  (The following year, he published a proposal to prove lightning is electricity by flying a kite with a metal key attached during an impending storm, in an attempt to capture sparks from clouds.)

Benjamin Franklin

1780s – Luigi Galvani reanimates a frog

The latter half of the 18th century saw Italian physician Luigi Galvani experimenting with “medical electricity”. Upon touching his scalpel to a brass hook that secured a frog’s leg to a table, Galvani observed the leg twitch and believed he had discovered “animal electricity” within the unfortunate reptile. His experiments were the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

1799 – Alessandro Volta’s voltaic pile

Volta took issue with Galvani’s claim that he had found electricity inside a frog, and set out to prove it was the contact of two dissimilar metals (the brass hook and the scalpel) that produced the electric charge. His experiments ended up producing the world’s first battery – the voltaic pile. It consisted of a stack of alternating copper and zinc discs separated by cardboard soaked in brine (electrolyte); connecting the top and bottom contacts with a wire resulted in an electric current.

Pila Di Volta

1836 – the Daniell cell

John Frederic Daniell was a British chemist and meteorologist who developed a new type of electrochemical cell – an unglazed earthenware container holding sulphuric acid and a zinc electrode, submerged in a copper pot filled with copper sulphate solution. Lasting significantly longer than a voltaic cell, Daniell cells also provided a steadier current and remained in domestic use for over a century, powering doorbells, telephones and telegraphs.

Nmah Daniell Cell Batteries

1886 – the dry cell

German scientist Carl Gassner filed a patent for the “dry cell” – the first battery not to contain liquid. Instead, it used a paste electrolyte which contained just enough moisture to allow current to flow. Because dry cells contain no liquid, it became possible to use these batteries at any angle or position without fear of leaking – making them suitable for powering portable devices.

1896 – the Columbia dry cell

10 years later, America’s National Carbon Company manufactured the first commercially available dry cell: the Columbia dry cell. This paved the way for consumer batteries; the iconic AA size cell was born in 1907 (albeit not standardised until 1947), and has remained a stalwart of the industry ever since.

Antique Dry Cells

1957 – first electric watch

The first half of the 20th century saw rapid innovation as batteries became smaller and more portable. By 1957 they were small enough to power the world’s first retail electric watch: the Hamilton 500. Admittedly, many of these early models had mechanisms that failed and had to be returned but over time the battery-powered-solenoid system was perfected, and electric watches became the norm.


1973 – first battery-powered cell phone

In 1973, the battery was instrumental in setting the stage for perhaps the biggest cultural shift of the 20th century when Martin Cooper and a team of engineers from Motorola unveiled their DynaTAC prototype: the world’s first cellular phone. Phones eventually became so much smaller and more powerful (along with the batteries inside them) that Martin Cooper appeared somewhat comical when he was reunited with his invention for this photo in 2007:

First Cell Phone

1979 – the Walkman revolutionises how we listen to music

Japan’s Sony walkman gave people the power to soundtrack their own lives, and it would not have been possible without the humble AA dry cell. Another major cultural shift for personal technology, its function would eventually (like the portable gaming devices that would hit the market a decade later) be subsumed into the smartphones we carry in our pockets today.

Sony Walkman

1989 – portable gaming is born

Nintendo released the Gameboy in 1989, and made legions of teenagers far more interested in procuring sets of four AA batteries than they had ever been before.


2004 – Tesla Roadster

Tesla Motors began developing the Roadster in 2004, and four years later released the world’s first street-legal serial-production all-electric car powered solely by lithium ion battery cells. It was a huge step in terms of making battery-powered driving more practical, setting a benchmark as the first entirely electric car to travel more than 200 miles on a single charge. The photo below shows the Roadster charging from a conventional mains outlet.  

Tesla Roadster Charging

2017 – the world’s biggest battery

This year Tesla announced plans to build the world’s largest ever lithium ion battery, cementing its position as the industry leader in battery storage. The 129MWh battery is to be built in South Australia and paired with a wind farm, highlighting the fact that the key to a sustainable future lies in using technology to maximise how efficiently we generate and store renewable energy.