Science history: How the bunnies got their power
Jeff Glorfeld looks back at the birth of the battery.
A 2004 article on the history of batteries written to promote a Canadian company begins: “The battery is one of the most important man-made inventions”.
The accuracy of that comment is beyond question, but the next sentence raises doubts about the rigour of the writer’s research: “Before Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity in the 1740s, the concept of batteries may have already been in existence.”
It was in 1752 that Franklin, the American statesman, author and scientist, conducted experiments involving a kite, a metal key, a Leyden jar and an electrical storm, but he succeeded in confirming the link between lightning and electricity, nothing more – or less.
By the way, Leyden jars were invented just a few years before Franklin flew his kite, taking their name from the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, where much early experimentation into their creation took place.
An article published by the US National Science Foundation explains that these devices, “though quite humble, represented a tremendous breakthrough in the history of electricity, as they were the very first capacitors, and as such were able to store electric charge. Scientists had been creating static electricity with electrostatic generators for a century; now they finally had someplace to put it.”
A crucial step in the development of the battery came in 1799, when Alessandro Volta produced his Voltaic Cell.
Born in Como, Italy, on 18 February 1745, Volta introduced the theory of electrical current and observed electricity separating water into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen.
According to the Engineering and Technology History Wiki, Volta discovered that electricity could be generated chemically and made to flow evenly through a conductor in a closed circuit. His “Voltaic pile” was made of alternating copper and zinc discs, with each pair of metals separated by flannel soaked in weak acid.
The volt, a standard unit of electric potential, is named in his honour.
In 1836, Englishman John F. Daniell came up with his Daniell Cell, which, according to the ThoughtCo.com “History and Timeline of the Battery”, lasted longer than Volta’s creation and “was used to power objects such as telegraphs, telephones, and doorbells”, and “remained popular in homes for over 100 years”.
It was Lewis Urry, however, who created the battery we have known and used for more than half a century.
Born on 29 January 1927, in Pontypool, Ontario, Canada, Urry graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Toronto in 1950.
In 1955, he was working as a development engineer for Canadian National Carbon – a Toronto division of the US company Union Carbide, which made Eveready batteries – when he was transferred to Eveready’s facility in Cleveland, Ohio.
His task – to find a way to make standard carbon-zinc batteries last longer – was inspired by the growing market for battery-powered toys.
“Although scientists had long experimented with cells that used an alkaline material, which generates more power, no one had succeeded in devising the right combination of materials for a small, longer-lasting battery that would be worth the extra cost,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in an obituary following his death on 19 October 2004.
“Urry discovered that manganese dioxide and solid zinc worked well with an alkaline substance as an electrolyte, which conducts the electricity. The cells, however, still weren’t powerful enough.”
Urry’s key discovery was that using powdered zinc would give more surface area and thus boost power.
The first Eveready alkaline batteries went on sale in 1959 and were re-branded under the Energizer name in 1980. The LA Times says Urry’s son Steven told reporters that his father “took special pride around Christmas, when there was a rush for batteries”.
His unsung achievement, the obituary suggests, “transformed the way we live and helped usher in a world of cordless electric razors, camcorders, cellphones, laptop computers and Walkmans”.
Energizer sales were boosted by the ubiquitous presence of the market mascot the Energizer bunny, but it must be noted that rival battery maker Duracell came up with its battery-powered bunny mascot first, back in 1973.
The Energizer bunny didn’t appear until 1989 and they have been subject to several international court cases.