A Brief History of Batteries and Their Development

Throughout history there have been many breakthroughs and marvels that have drastically changed the way we live for the better. From the humble wheel to the highly-advanced, high-speed Internet, science has given us many things to be thankful for.  

One of those things is the ever ubiquitous and nigh-invisible battery – that miraculous container of stored electricity that powers not only children’s’ toys but also the very technology that we rely upon in our day-to-day. In this article, we’ll be talking about the history of this technological marvel that’s often taken for granted nowadays and how it holds such an exciting future for all of us.


Defining the Battery

Before the history lesson, however, let’s talk about the battery itself.

To put it in the most simplest of terms, a battery is essentially a device that stores chemical energy. This energy is converted to electricity whenever the battery is snapped into a device that requires batteries. In essence a battery is a small, handheld chemical reactor that you can take with you and power anything you want with it.

The Battery in the Ancient World

Where did batteries start, and who invented the first battery? Well, there’s a bit of a debate about that. In 1983, the director of the Baghdad Museum at the time discovered what is now termed as the ‘Baghdad Battery’ in, of all places, the basement of his own museum. Carbon dating and analysis revealed that it was quite old, made around 250 BC, and was apparently of Mesopotamian origin.

No one exactly knows what exactly it was used for –certainly, there wasn’t any technology at the time that needed portable energy – but some experts suggest it was either used for electroplating or pain relief. Others state that it might have been used to give worshippers a ‘religious experience’ in the form of an electric shock or tingling sensation.

The Advent of the First Battery

The legitimacy of the Baghdad Battery aside, the very first actual battery was invented in 1800 by Italian physicist Alessandro Volta. By stacking discs of copper and zinc, each one separated by saltwater-soaked cloth, he was able to produce a continuous and stable current when wires were connected to either end of the stack. He also discovered that the more discs he stacked in this manner, more power could be generated.

This creation of energy is due to the extra electrons being produced by the chemical reaction between the two different metals. This chemical reaction is called electrolysis.

Thus, the battery as we know it is born, and it would continue to evolve throughout the years. In 1859, French Physicist Gaston Planté developed the first rechargeable battery, a design that used lead acid and one still being used to this day, mainly in internal combustion engine cars.

Evolution of the Modern Battery

Forty years later, the first nickel-cadmium battery (NiCD) was invented by Swedish inventor Waldmar Jungner, with the battery sporting a higher output capacity at the cost of being very expensive to make. This design would see various revisions, including one from famous inventor Thomas Edison who used iron instead of cadmium to drive the cost down, and the NiMH version which replaced cadmium with Metal-Hydride for a lessened impact on the environment.

But as the NiCD/NiMH family of batteries would continue to evolve, a game changer was already being developed elsewhere. In 1979, ten years before the NiMH battery came to the fore, American and Japanese physicists John Goodenough and Koichi Mizushima created the very first lithium-ion battery. This was a huge breakthrough at the time, as the usage of Lithium not only allowed for rechargeable, high-powered batteries but also smaller and lighter ones.

This design would continue to improve in stability, longevity and output capacity until lithium batteries finally became the standard battery technology for portable technology – an achievement we can clearly see and experience in our devices such as smartphones and laptops. We are also seeing lithium battery technologies being scaled up to power bigger things, from power tools and hybrid-electric vehicles to actual households.

Does the evolution of the battery stop here? We can certainly say not. Today, researchers and scientists all over the world are still chasing after that new breakthrough – one that would allow for more compact, higher-capacity rechargeable batteries that are not only safer but also more environmentally-friendly as well. Only time will tell what the next step up from lithium batteries will be.

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