Birth of the Battery

Count Alessandro Giuseppe Anastasio Volta (1745–1827) belonged to an aristocratic family and was Professor of Physics at the universities of Como and Pavia. He became interested in a phenomenon described by Galvani in 1786 to the effect that “an electric spark, or contact with copper and iron, causes a frog’s leg to twitch”. This gave rise to the, fortunately short-termed, belief that animal tissue was necessary for the generation of electricity. Experiments showed Volta that an electric current could be generated by bringing different metals into contact with each other. There are different versions of which metals he used: some writers claim silver and zinc, others, copper and zinc. In 1799, he succeeded in making a construction of metal discs, alternately silver (or copper) and zinc, with brine-soaked card between them. This ‘voltaic pile’ as it became known was the first man-made source of electricity. Its invention was made known by Volta to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, in a letter in early 1800. In this letter, Volta says that he used 25 mm dia. copper and zinc discs. After his invention was made known, Volta did little further work on the device. His name survives, however, in the SI unit of electric potential difference, the volt. It is interesting to note that in 1848 Scyffer in his Geschichtliche Darstellung der Galvanisms (Historical Notation of Electric Phenomena) states that others besides Volta carried out experiments with dry cells between 1800 and 1812, namely Ludicke, Einhof, Ritter, Hachette, Desornes, Biot, and others. Several physicists of that era, particularly Zamboni, expressed as their opinion that the best performance was not that of Volta but that of De Luc. Be that as it may, Volta’s invention transformed the study of electricity and was, therefore, invaluable to men such as Nicholson, Davy and Faraday. It also put paid to the belief that animal tissue was needed for the generation of electricity. It may be said that all this work in the early part of the 19th century was experimental. The first reliable, practical source of electric current, based on the interactions of carbon and zinc in an electrolyte consisting of, among others, ammonium chloride, manganese dioxide, zinc chloride and water, was described by the French physicist Georges Leclanché in 1868. The Leclanché cell, improved many times since its inception, remains the best known dry or primary cell in common use today. The secondary battery, invented in 1803 by Johann Wolfgang Ritter (1776–1808) consists of discs of one metal separated by circular pieces of cardboard that are moistened in a liquid that cannot chemically affect the metal. When the extremities of this pile are linked to the poles of a voltaic pile, it becomes electrified and can be substituted for the latter and it will retain the charge. However, the first practical secondary battery, the lead-acid battery, was produced in 1859 by another French physicist, Gaston Planté (1834–1889). In spite of all sorts of other type of secondary battery, the lead-acid battery remains the most widely used secondary battery in the world today.

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