The battery is one of the most important parts of our modern lives, supplying voltage to our homes, cars, and mobile devices. But where did the idea of ‘capturing’ and storing this electrical energy come from? Who invented the battery and why?
The battery was invented by Alessandro Volta, who created a voltaic pile consisting of copper and zinc discs separated by layers of cloth soaked in brine.
There’s a lot of fascinating history behind the invention of the battery, but it’s fair to say that the inquisitive minds behind the use of electricity are the reason we have all the modern amenities we take for granted today.
The rest of this article will cover the life and invention of Alessandro Volta, as well as what inspired him to invent the battery.
What Is a Battery?
A battery is, quite simply, a container with one or more cells that converts chemical energy into usable electrical energy as a power source.
The first batteries suffered from short circuits, inefficient designs, and unreliable current, but as people started to recognize the nature of electricity, the idea of storing and using it became more appealing.
Why Was the Battery Invented?
The battery, much like other scientific inventions, was a creation that relied on some experimentation and testing of hypotheses. Alessandro Volta theorized and invented the first battery based on his theory that observed electrical phenomena resulted from the pairing of two different metals with a moist item in between.
This hypothesis that sparked the invention of the first battery was based on findings by a friend and colleague, Luigi Galvani, prompting Volta to put his scientific hypothesis to the test.
How Was the Battery Invented?
To understand the invention of the battery, it’s worth taking a look at how electricity was stored beforehand. Although there was no known practical use for it, the Leyden jar, an early capacitor, was capable of storing electrical charge.
These jars could be hooked together to make a larger capacitor. It wasn’t until 1780 that Luigi Galvani, an Italian physician, made some interesting discoveries about bioelectricity.
His experiment confirmed that a dead frogs’ leg would twitch when struck with an electrical spark, leading to the suggestion that the leg itself was capable of holding a current.
Volta was fascinated by this discovery and repeated the experiment himself several times, although he would express his doubts as to the cause of the electricity, suggesting that it was a result of the metal cable connecting the nerves and muscles, not the intrinsic electricity in the frog’s body.
While the two disagreed, Volta would prove his intuitions correct when he verified that electrical phenomena were caused when two different metals were joined together with a moist intermediary.
His creation was called the voltaic pile and is the first recorded example of a battery. In 1774, Volta demonstrated his efforts, pairing two different metals with a brine-soaked cloth to form a metal circuit.
In 1800, Volta would replicate this experiment with zinc, copper, and cardboard soaked in brine, increasing the electromotive force.
The Success and Failure of the Voltaic Pile
The voltaic pile, the first real battery, was not well understood even by its inventor. Volta was convinced that the current was simply a result of contact between the two metals in a theory known as contact tension.
The corrosion, he believed, was not an indicator of a chemical reaction, but a flaw that could be rectified by changing the metal in the circuit.
Over time, however, it became clear that corrosion was connected to the function of the battery somehow, prompting the widespread acceptance of the electrochemical theory.
The voltaic pile was not a perfect battery; the weight of the discs squeezing the brine-soaked cloth was associated with short circuits. In time, a Scotsman by the name of William Cruickshank addressed this issue by laying the circuit in a container instead of a stack.
The biggest problem with Volta’s battery, however, was practicality. The battery life only lasted for an hour due to the electrolyzation of the solution causing a film of hydrogen bubbles to form o the copper, increasing the resistance of the battery.
While the world may not have known how to use it yet, Volta’s discovery sparked a flood of innovations that would soon result in the world’s first practical batteries. Thanks to his tremendous work, Volta was inducted as a count in 1810. Retiring just 9 years later, he would live out the rest of his life on his estate in Como, Italy.
The First Practical Batteries
While Volta certainly takes the credit for inventing the first battery, as it stands, English chemistry professor John Fredric Daniell made great strides in making the voltaic pile actually usable.
The main problem, as mentioned above, was the buildup of hydrogen bubbles. To combat this, he used a second electrolyte to consume the excess hydrogen that the first produced.
In 1836, Daniell invented a battery that proved to be a significant improvement, providing a stronger and more reliable current than its predecessor. This battery was called the Daniell cell and became the go-to electrical battery for powering telegraph networks.
In addition, the Daniell battery became the original working standard for the measurement of volts, the unit of electromotive force.
Some other notable batteries that sprung up in the 1830s were the Bird’s Cell, Porous pot cell, Poggendorff cell, and Grove cell.
The history of the battery is an extension of the history of electricity. As people began to discover what it was, they also took interest in how it worked.
Thanks to a series of predecessors, Volta was able to create the very first battery, impractical as it may have been. While Volta may have misunderstood what caused the battery to work in the first place, his legendary achievement will go down in the history of electric science, and his voltaic pile became the stepping stone towards the very first practical batteries years later.