Batteries not included. How disappointing. Here you are, buying something that needs a battery to work, and you have to go somewhere else to buy a battery.
Batteries are a big business, the global market is around $100 billion a year and growing steadily. Today batteries power portable lights, phones, cars and radios but while we may think of the battery as an adjunct to these wonderful devices it’s actually the other way around; this rather simple invention enabled all our modern communication and even transportation.
Do you know anybody who collects old batteries? Me neither. However there is a small but growing collectors’ market for vintage batteries. Old school electronics collectors look for very early and rare examples but increasingly, there are collectors for the small cells that powered toys, radios and flashlights in the 1950s and 60s. People who collect those items will often find old batteries in them; many become fascinated with the graphics and start a collection. There were hundreds, if not thousands of different companies producing cheap batteries all over the world (though most were in Japan) and they all had their own unique graphics.
Batteries also appeal to collectors of old packaging but in this case, the battery is the packaging; they were often sold without a box or container. They also have an appeal in that they were disposable which makes them both hard to find today and probably not highly valued when you do find one.
Although now most of our electricity comes from the power grid and we consider batteries a secondary source, batteries were invented before the generator; for a long time batteries were our only source of electricity.
The name was coined by Benjamin Franklin in 1749. Up to then the generic term was used to describe a group of objects working together, as in an artillery battery. Franklin used it to describe a set of linked capacitors, which are basically tanks that hold electricity. Eventually the term was used to describe linked cells that generate electricity.
Those cells were invented in 1800 by Alessandro Volta, whose name lives on as volt, a unit of electrical force. It was Volta who determined that when two disparate metals were packed together separated by a liquid, or electrolyte, a small current of electricity passed from one metal to the other and you could increase the electrical current by packing several cells together.
Volta’s original cell had many flaws, a short life-span chief among them, but it worked and soon dozens of other inventors around the globe set about to make better batteries to service the burgeoning railroad and telegraph industries. Over the next few decades batteries improved to become more powerful and reliable. The first electric motors appeared around 1830 and by the mid-1830s, the two inventions were robust enough to be combined to make practical electric automobiles.
These vehicles were being produced in Europe and North America but they were so revolutionary that lawmakers severely curtailed their use; often limiting speeds to 2 miles per hour. In England it was required that each vehicle be proceeded by a person on foot waving a red flag. Moreover, range was limited and the batteries were not rechargeable so they didn’t really catch on.
The recharging problem was solved around 1859 with the invention of the lead-acid battery. Up to then batteries were limited because the chemicals would degrade or they would build up contaminants that blocked the electrical flow. In the lead-acid battery, that degradation was reversed by applying a current back the other way, making it just like new again. It was a bulky battery but could give a powerful jolt over short periods of time so was perfect for electric cars.
By the late 1800s electric vehicles became the favourite mode of self-powered, personal transportation; more popular than steam vehicles, such as the Stanley Steamer, which were bulky and dangerous and much more popular than gasoline powered cars which were noisy, expensive and unreliable. All of these new vehicles were considered useful in combating pollution in urban areas, not from fumes but from horses. In New York City alone in 1900 it was estimated that horses dumped 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine on the streets every day. Every year 15,000 dead horses had to be removed. Any automobile, even the stinky gas-powered ones were considered an improvement.
Ironically, the lead-acid battery that made the electric car viable was a major factor in its demise.
Gasoline-powered cars gained a big advantage in 1900 when a huge reserve of oil was discovered in Texas. Suddenly America had a steady, reliable supply of very cheap energy. Henry Ford’s Model T, or more importantly his mass-manufacturing methods, brought the cost of gas-powered cars down dramatically but they had a big disadvantage – they were very hard to start. The engine had to be turned over, or cranked by hand which required a lot of strength and often that crank would kick back severely injuring or even killing the driver. This meant gas cars were mainly driven by men while women preferred electric vehicles. In 1908 Henry Ford bought his wife Clara an electric car and experimented with making them himself.
American inventor Charles Kettering, who had already given us the electric cash register, changed all that by inventing the first self-starting unit for an internal combustion engine, powered by a lead-acid battery. Now anyone could start a car by pushing a button. What’s more, once the engine got going, it would turn a generator (which Kettering also invented) that would recharge the battery and power the lights and ignition. The first starter motors were installed in the 1912 Cadillac and by 1920 even Henry Ford (who tended to think of his car as perfect and resisted change) was putting them in the Model T.
The lead-acid batteries in those early cars were pretty well the same as the ones we use today, but batteries themselves continued to evolve and drive more inventions.
The next challenge was to get rid of the liquid electrolyte and come up with a dry alternative, which would increase portability. Many methods were developed that worked, more or less, but it was the National Carbon Company in Cleveland, Ohio, using a patent from the German scientist, Carl Gassner, that came out with the first commercial dry cell in 1896. The Columbia Dry Cell led directly to the invention of the flashlight (so named because early models could only work for short periods of time) in 1899.
The dry cell was also critical in early telephones, allowed for the invention of hundreds of other portable devices and animated or lit thousands of others, especially toys.
Today batteries continue to improve but the Lithium-ion in the mid-1980s was the last big advancement. Once again concerns about pollution have resurrected the electric vehicle but we need a major improvement in battery technology to make electric cars viable, and that doesn’t seem to be happening.
While more and more batteries are being made and they do work better, from a collectors’ perspective today’s batteries lack the personality of those little beauties from the 1950s and 60s. So if you find an old flashlight or radio or toy with a vintage, dead battery in it, don’t throw it away, it’s an important relic of our battery-powered past.