Columbia dry cell

Battery development shifted in the 1890s to the United States with the development of the Columbia dry cell by the National Carbon Company (NCC), the corporate predecessor of the Energizer Battery Company. NCC was founded in Cleveland in 1886 by Washington H. Lawrence, a pioneer in the manufacture of electrical products.

In 1894 NCC began marketing Leclanché wet cells. At the same time, in the mid-1890s, a bright and talented young man, E. M. Jewett, was working in NCC's Lakewood plant on the west side of Cleveland, under the direction of George Little. Jewett became interested in dry cells and, in his free time, conducted experiments in the laboratory. He developed a paper-lined, 1.5 volt cylindrical dry cell which he showed to Lawrence, who gave Jewett and Little a green light to begin manufacturing commercial dry cells. The trademark "Columbia" was proposed by Nelson C. Cotabish, a sales manager at NCC. In 1896 the company marketed the very first battery intended for widespread consumer use: the sealed, six-inch, 1.5 volt Columbia. NCC was the first company to successfully manufacture and distribute sealed dry cell batteries on a large scale.

The introduction of the Columbia marked an important step in the transformation of batteries from industrial products to consumer goods. Leclanché wet cells could not meet market needs for a maintenance-free, durable, non-spill, and non-breakable battery that was also inexpensive. The dry cell did, especially with subsequent improvements. One important advance came when NCC began using cardboard coiled into a tube as the separator between the anode and the cathode. Previous dry cell iterations, such as the Gassner version, had used plaster of Paris which left only a small space for the cathode. This was an inefficient system and such batteries were difficult to assemble.

The Columbia used a paste of flour and potato starch to coat the separator before it was placed inside the zinc can. This formulation improved ion diffusion through the separator and adhesion of the separator to the can. Also with improvements, the Columbia used less carbon than earlier batteries which resulted in an increase in energy density (the energy per unit volume of the medium). The Columbia had one other attribute that made it different from other contemporary batteries: it was not sensitive to orientation. This proved especially important for the automobile industry, since a device that moved could not rely on a power source that worked only when facing in certain directions.

Continued improvements in the Columbia battery led to better performance. Because it was sealed there was no spillage and it did not break as easily as predecessors. It was also chemically efficient and economical to produce. Accordingly, the six-inch, 1.5 volt Columbia satisfied the requirements of the consumer market at the beginning of the 20th century. The technology of the Columbia, a carbon-zinc battery using an acidic electrolyte, served as the basis of all dry cell batteries for the next sixty years, until the introduction of the alkaline battery by the Eveready Battery Company (now Energizer) in the late 1950s.


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