History of the Battery

Modern battery development can be traced to the work of Luigi Galvani, who observed in the 1780s that a frog's leg twitched when connected by arcs made of iron and brass. Galvani thought the twitching originated in the leg tissue, suggesting that animals produce electricity (an assertion not definitively proved until the 1840s). Alessandro Volta, another pioneer in the field, thought that Galvani's explanation was incorrect and that Galvani's results arose from his use of two different metals connected by a moist conductor (a frog's leg).

In the 1790s Volta experimented with inanimate systems consisting of metal plates connected by brine-soaked cardboard to produce electric current. To build the first modern electrical battery, Volta stacked disks of zinc and silver in pairs to form a "pile." The "voltaic pile" was the first device producing continuous current; his work established the electrochemical principles that remain the basis of batteries used today. For several decades after Volta all advances in producing electricity still involved the use of liquid electrodes. And well into the 20th century the medium was always acidic.

The next major advance came in 1866 when Georges Leclanché developed a much improved battery. Leclanché assembled his cell in a porous pot. The cathode consisted of crushed manganese dioxide with a little carbon added. The anode was a zinc rod. The cathode was packed into the pot with a carbon rod inserted as a current collector. The anode and the pot were then immersed in an ammonium chloride solution, which acted as the electrolyte. The liquid seeped through the porous cup and made contact with the cathode material. Even though it was a heavy wet cell prone to breaking, Leclanché's invention represented an advance over previous batteries and it became an immediate success, gaining wide use in telegraph systems within two years of its development.

Further improvements came in the 1880's when Carl Gassner, a German scientist, invented the first dry cell. Gassner used zinc as the container to house the cell's other components; at the same time, he used the sealed zinc container as the anode. The cathode surrounded a carbon rod. Gassner also added zinc chloride to the electrolyte, which markedly reduced corrosion of the zinc when the cell was idle, adding considerably to its shelf life.


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