The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution - Henry Schlesinger (2010)

Chapter 9. Genius by Design

“Electricity: carver of light and power, devourer of time and space; bearer of human speech over land and sea; greatest servant of man—yet itself unknown.”

—Charles W. Eliot, inscription on
Union Station, Washington, D.C.

The electrical infrastructure proved painfully slow in its expansion, particularly when compared to the telegraph. As late as 1917, only about 24 percent of the homes in the United States had electricity. And, even more surprising, by 1925, decades after Edison began lighting New York from his Pearl Street power plant in the early 1880s, few rural residents had electrical power—though cities were nearly fully electrified.

In a world not yet wired for electricity, which was still seen as something of an urban novelty rather than everyday convenience, Edison led the way in developing new battery-powered products. Among the first and perhaps oddest of these was the electric pen. Developed in Edison’s shop in 1875, it was among the first consumer products that featured an electric motor. The pen was a somewhat standard-sized shaft with a small electric motor mounted on top. When switched on, a tiny reciprocating needle perforated the paper with thousands of tiny holes as the user wrote, creating a stencil. The paper was then fitted into a small desktop press and copied by running ink over it with a roller, like an old-style printing press or silk screen. The ink would flow through the holes made by the needle to produce a copy.

Edison had high hopes for the pen, promoting it as a labor-saving device for use in offices. He was not completely wrong—copying documents was a time-consuming task in the 1800s. Marketed as “Edison’s Autograph Press and Electric Pen,” the device sold for $30.00 (about $600.00 in constant dollars). It might have achieved some level of immediate success if it had not been for the battery. Businessmen, it seemed, did not want to deal with the mess involved in lead acid batteries. Businesses, which were conservative by nature, had been resisting the typewriter for years. By some counts, there were more than fifty different versions of the typewriter created and patented over the years, all of them finding the most limited use. Around the same time as Edison introduced his pen, E. Remington and Sons, the manufacturer of firearms, began marketing a typewriter that finally met with some success. What chance did Edison’s pen, with its mysterious noisy motor and messy batteries, have in business offices?

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© Chris Costello

Edison’s solution was a total redesign of the batteries that powered the pen. Still using “wet cells,” he reengineered and sealed the casings so they were not easily spilled, then redesigned the entire unit, allowing owners to take it apart easily for cleaning. Finally, he added a small lever that lifted the electrode to keep the battery from running down when not in use.

Even with these improvements, the pen was not the resounding success Edison had hoped. However, it did find a few fans, most notably Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland. A few years later, the same stenciling principle as the electric pen was applied to the typewriter, which was finally catching on. The A. B. Dick Novelty Company developed a mimeograph system with Edison’s help that utilized a stenciling paper that could run off copies on a specialized printer. Using the best-known technological brand name in the business, the firm eventually marketed the product as the Edison mimeograph.

The pen did not vanish entirely. In the 1890s, nearly two decades after its introduction, a New York City tattoo artist, Samuel O’Reilly, modified the electric pen to create the first modern tattoo machine, significantly shortening what had been a long and much more painful process.

BATTERIES WOULD CONTINUE TO BEDEVIL Edison right up through the turn of the century and beyond. Even as his phonograph was taking off as a popular consumer product, customers balked when he replaced the standard mechanical models that required spring winding with a new battery-powered system. Early experiments had shown that spring motors, similar to those used in clocks or music boxes, could not produce the same kind of steady rotation needed to provide clear audio from the wax cylinder. Electric motors powered by batteries were the best engineering solution, but the public was stubbornly resistant.

Perhaps it was because consumers had low expectations for sound quality from the outset. And, too, the new battery-powered technology not only required regular maintenance to change the electrolyte, but it was significantly more expensive. Just as the home entertainment market was progressing beyond the upright piano in the parlor, consumers were probably price sensitive when it came to such an obvious luxury item. At a time when the battery-powered phonograph was selling for $100, cheap spring-driven machines sold by competitors flew out of stores for $25.00 or less.

By the turn of the century, Edison somewhat reluctantly designed a spring-powered machine that sold for $10.00, and sales took off. In 1898 he sold some 14,000 inexpensive spring-powered machines, but only a few more than 400 battery-powered units. The general public was not ready for batteries as a power source.

And most batteries were not ready for the general public. With relatively few consumer products to actually power, battery technology stalled and advanced uneasily, unable to get away from the wet cell. Then, two French chemists, Felix Lalande and George Chaperon, developed what would become known as the Lalande battery. The small unit was housed in a standard earthenware container and used zinc with compressed copper oxide along with a caustic electrolyte that was alkaline, rather than acid, based. Scientists had discovered that alkalines were not subject to polarization like batteries with acidic electrolytes and still provided a steady current while sacrificing only minimal power. The Lalande battery not only produced a current strong enough to power simple motors, but also required little maintenance outside of changing the electrolyte.

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© Chris Costello

The first version of the Lalande was a basic telegraphic cell, porous pot and all, intended for use by professionals. Although it was somewhat familiar-looking because of its container, the telegraph industry turned up its collective nose at the new battery. Polarization wasn’t a problem for professional battery men accustomed to dealing with it through long-established routines. The professionals’ problem with the Lalande battery was that it produced slightly less juice than acid-based batteries already in use.

Not discouraged, Lalande redesigned the package, substituting a sealed porcelain container for the standard porous pot. The new design didn’t do anything to boost the power output, but it did produce a battery that could be used in the home. For a brief time it even enjoyed a limited run powering electric lights.

Despite his unwavering belief that central stations were the way to go when it came to electric lighting, Edison also maintained high hopes for the battery as a power source for consumer products. The newly designed Lalande battery seemed a reasonable solution for those potential customers without electricity in their home, that is to say, the vast majority of the population. They were easy to use and maintain, and eventually Edison marketed the Edison-Lalande for a variety of devices, including phonographs. A little under eight inches high and four inches in diameter, the batteries were not only durable, but also powerful enough to put out in the field unattended for extended periods, making them ideal for applications such as powering train signals.

IN 1899 EDISON UNDERTOOK WHAT would turn out to be his last great project. As automobiles began to catch on, he sought to make a battery-powered car. Automobiles had captured the public’s imagination. As Edison correctly judged, they were about to become the next big thing. This would require a long-lasting, lightweight battery capable of recharging.

At the time, the dominance of the gasoline-powered car was far from a certainty, and Edison truly believed the internal combustion engine was nothing more than a bridge technology that would eventually lead to an electric car. In fact, he may have been right, but he badly misjudged just how long that bridge would endure and the difficulty in creating a durable, lightweight battery.

Electric cars were nothing new. They had been in use for years. The problem was in the weight of the batteries required to power the car. The Electrobat, for instance, introduced in 1894, weighed more than 4,000 pounds, a whopping 38 percent of which was made up of batteries—though it could go between 50 and 100 miles on a single charge.

To create a lightweight, sturdy, and easily charged power source would take Edison more than a decade of research and thousands of tests. In keeping with his proven methodology, he dispatched teams of assistants to read and paraphrase virtually everything published on primary batteries, both in the United States and Europe, including patents and technical journals going back decades. Still, Edison’s own development process took thousands of experiments with hundreds of different compounds until he finally hit on a viable alkaline battery.

When chided for the many battery experiments in which he failed, he is reputed to have answered, “No, I didn’t fail. I discovered 24,999 ways that the storage battery does not work.”

At one point, Edison, who was never shy about promoting his products prematurely, announced in an interview,

These batteries will run for 100 miles or more without recharging. They can be charged in a few hours. They require no attention for all that is needed to replenish the liquor [sic] is to pour in a little water now and then to take the place of that which has evaporated. I do not know how long it would take to wear out one of the batteries, for we have not yet been able to exhaust the possibilities of one of them. But I feel sure one will last longer than four or five automobiles.

That particular battery failed initial testing. Another battery passed the preliminary tests and was soon rushed into production.

Following a blueprint of his past successes, Edison arranged for the batteries to be used in vehicles for a number of high-profile companies, including Montgomery Ward, the Central Brewing Co., and Tiffany & Company. Unfortunately, the battery had a flaw that sent Edison and his team back to the drawing board again.

In the end, the alkaline storage battery Edison finally perfected had virtually no chance of gaining popularity among consumers no matter how reliable it may have been. Ford’s Model T, introduced in 1909 along with its reliable internal combustion engine, had become the standard for consumer autos. Henry Ford, who had once worked for the Edison Illuminating Company’s generating stations, had beat Edison at his own game. He had even come up with the pithy quote, “The customer can have any color he wants so long as it’s black,” he was reported to have said about the Model T.

Not about to let those years of research go to waste, Edison set about finding new uses for his alkaline battery, designing a wide array of devices it could power, from railroad signals and switches to ship lighting and miner’s lights. Eventually, it became one of the most profitable divisions of Edison’s empire.

However, the long years spent in battery development may have also distracted the Wizard of Menlo Park from other inventions coming on line at the time. He rejected radio, calling it a “craze” and took special pains to explain that “…there are several laws of nature which cannot be overcome when attempts are made to make the radio a musical instrument.” For years he resisted building a phonograph with a radio integrated into the unit, seeing the two technologies in competition for consumers’ attention, even as his distributors and customers demanded just such a product.