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

Chapter 10. Victorian Age of Discovery

“To the electron—may it never be of any use to anybody!”

—Joseph John Thomson

The late nineteenth century was an exciting time for science. In the 1880s, the German physicist Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of radio waves—called Hertzian waves—emanating from simple electrical sparks generated from a battery. Wilhelm Röntgen (sometimes Roentgen) discovered radiation in fluorescing glass tubes. And in England, Joseph John Thomson’s work at Cambridge led him to study the effects of electricity and magnetism on gas that would unlock the secrets of the atom.

Like Faraday, Thomson (J. J. to his friends and colleagues), who secured his reputation for genius at an early age, came to science by unlikely chance. His father, a bookseller outside Manchester, had pushed for his son to go into engineering. But, unable to pay the required apprentice fees, Thomson was enrolled at nearby Owens College (now the University of Manchester) to study math. Math was better than nothing and perhaps some good would come of it. As it turned out, young Thomson’s brilliance at math was quickly recognized and within a short time he was shipped off on scholarship to Cambridge, where his genius came into full bloom.

Elected Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics before the age of thirty, Thomson was a quiet, unassuming sort, gentle and bespectacled; he was more comfortable with mathematical proofs scrawled on a blackboard than with experimentation. In many ways, he was the mirror opposite of Faraday, who honed his fine motor skills at the bookbinding trade of his youth and became the master experimenter, but struggled with higher mathematics. Conversely, Thomson breezed through the equations of complex math, but was extraordinarily, nearly comically clumsy around glass tubes and beakers. According to legend, his students stood fearfully by whenever he approached their experiments, afraid that he’d topple their precisely arranged work. Paradoxically it was a fairly complex piece of lab equipment that was essential to Thomson’s breakthrough experiment.

It had been known for some time that electricity boosted to high voltages with an induction (or Ruhmkorff) coil behaved oddly when exposed to gas in a sealed glass container. The glass glowed luminously. Scientists had been studying the phenomenon as far back as 1858 with little to show for it other than beautifully lit cylinders of glass. What exactly was happening inside the tubes remained a mystery. The glow originated in the negatively charged cathode and traveled the short distance to the positive anode, but beyond that point very little was known. Some physicists theorized that perhaps the glow was caused by an unidentified interaction with electricity that produced light waves. Thomson conceived of an experiment to settle the matter. When he sealed a glass tube with two metal plates on each end and connected the plates to a battery and induction coil, the tube glowed—projecting the mysterious light from the negative to the positively charged plate. What Thomson and a few others had built was a cathode ray tube—essentially a very primitive version of the picture tubes once widely used in televisions and computer monitors. Thomson theorized that the mysterious glow was not caused by light waves, but rather by negatively charged particles pouring off the flat cathode (negatively charged metal) at the end of the tube.

They were, he guessed, attracted to the positively charged anode. If a magnet were placed nearby, the electromagnetic field would bend the flow of particles—very much in the same way that kids distort the picture on a television’s image by placing a magnet near the picture tube. The positive pull of the magnet attracted the negatively charged particles.

Others had tried the same experiment but failed, primarily because their apparatus had not sufficiently cleared the tube of all the gases. Thomson’s experiment succeeded. Not only did it succeed, but he could measure the ratio of charge to mass of the particles by the way the electromagnetic field bent the beam of light.

The results, by any acceptable explanation, were a little wacky. All the data indicated that whatever was being projected was much smaller than a hydrogen atom, the smallest, lightest matter known. Thomson had discovered the electron, the first known subatomic particle, which he dubbed the “corpuscle.” Other physicists eventually proved him right with their calculations. It was only later that the name changed to the less visceral “electron”—a name Thomson stubbornly rejected until sometime in 1914—eight years after winning the Nobel Prize for its discovery.

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© Chris Costello

Edison had witnessed a very similar phenomenon years earlier. When experimenting with his lightbulb, he inserted an extra electrode into the bulb and noticed the interior blackening with the discharge of electrons. The phenomenon, which he called “the Edison effect,” was largely ignored by the inventor. It wasn’t until late in his life when he was actively seeking acceptance by the scientific community that he would tout his discovery. “I was working on so many things at the time, that I had no time to do anything more about it,” he said.

“To the electron—may it never be of any use to anybody!” became Thomson’s favorite toast.

AT AROUND THE TIME LALANDE and Chaperon were refining the design for their battery in France, the German chemist Carl Gassner patented what came to be known as the “dry cell.” In a simple variation on the Leclanché battery, Gassner mixed ammonium chloride with plaster of paris and some zinc chloride, and then sealed it in a zinc container.

It was an ingenious design; the zinc can that housed the battery also served as the negative electrode. Pumping out a steady 1.5 volts, the advantages of Gassner’s design over standard “wet cells” were immense, particularly for the consumer market. It didn’t spill or require maintenance, could be mounted in virtually any position, and was more or less every bit as reliable as anything on the market, even the Lalande-Chaperon design. And, too, because it was a solid, Gassner’s battery could easily be scaled down to virtually any size. Gassner wasted no time in patenting his new battery throughout Europe and the United States in 1887. In the 1890s, the Cleveland-based National Carbon Company (later known as Eveready, and then Energizer), which had been manufacturing Leclanché wet cells, made some basic modifications to Gassner’s original design and began marketing the batteries under the brand name Columbia dry cell. An instant success, the Columbia dry cell measured some six inches long and, like the original, produced a steady 1.5 volts. Cheap to manufacture and easy to use, the sealed, carbon zinc battery with an acidic electrolyte was the first mass-produced consumer battery in the United States. Finally, here was a compact, durable battery with which to power all manner of devices.

Thanks to the new battery, electric power was now truly portable and ready for the consumer market. A whole slew of novelty companies began selling strange and often gaudy devices, sometimes using the Columbia dry cell, but very often producing their own handmade batteries. One could buy electric ties and stickpins lit by tiny bulbs and powered by a battery concealed in the pocket of a suit coat. The McConnell Segar Company of Indianapolis sold the “Ever Ready Electric Walking Cane” with a small bulb mounted on the top encased in glass.

However, even with a reliable form of energy packaged in a format acceptable to consumers, there were still relatively few practical things to power. There were electric clocks, many of them housed in extravagantly carved wooden cases, and the continued spread of doorbells. There were bicycle lights, catering to the increasingly popular form of transportation, and electric insoles to warm your feet. But these were mostly novelties; the average consumer could do just fine without battery-powered products.

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The first mass-produced battery, the Columbia dry cell pumped out a reliable 1.5 volts to power a new generation of gadgets at the dawn of the twentieth century.

© Eveready Battery Company, Inc. Reprinted with permission

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© Chris Costello

THE STORY OF THE MOST common of all battery-powered devices, the flashlight, remains somewhat clouded. Here is its simplest form: in the late 1800s, Conrad Hubert, a Russian immigrant, who was already marketing an assortment of electric novelties including battery-powered stickpins through his American Ever-Ready Company, teamed up with a David Missell (sometimes spelled Misell), who had worked for Birdsall Electric, which also made battery-powered novelties. Together they formed the American Electrical Novelty & Manufacturing Company to sell the flashlight along with other battery-powered products, such as bicycle lights.

In truth, there were flashlights already on the market in the form of reconfigured bicycle lights. Missell and Hubert’s innovation was to house their product around what would become known as the D cell battery in a tubular design, making them lighter than the square wooden or metal cases of bicycle lights and easier to carry.

Lacking neither ambition nor nerve, the partners promoted their flashlights by giving them away to New York City policemen and then collected testimonials from the patrolmen to use in advertising. The light was an unqualified success. Since the D cell at the time measured just 2 ¼ inches in length and 1 ¼ inches in diameter, three of them could fit in the new device and provide ample power for extended periods of time.

Eventually, the firm was sold to battery manufacturer National Carbon, which would eventually change its name to Ever Ready. And it might have ended there, if not for Joshua Lionel Cowen. In a 1947 interview with The New Yorker magazine, Cowen claimed that it was he, not Missell, who had invented the flashlight. According to this new story, Cowen came up with a small, battery-powered tubular light to illuminate potted plants. Missell had simply removed the tube from the decorative planter to create the flashlight. Later, he explained, Missell and Hubert bought out his company for a song.

A native New Yorker and a tinkerer from a young age, Cowen attended City College and then Columbia University for a short time before landing at a lamp factory. According to his own account, by experimenting at night he came up with a new type of flash powder for cameras at eighteen, took out a patent and found the U.S. Navy was interested in the formula for mines, eventually building enough detonators to equip some 24,000 mines.

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© Chris Costello

With the contract completed, Cowen began building flower pot lights and hired Missell to sell them. Cowen recalled that he gave the idea to Hubert in 1906 after either growing bored with the flower pots or tired of complaints from customers. Hubert then, at least according to Cowen, sold half interest in the American Electrical Novelty and Manufacturing to the National Carbon Company, Ever Ready’s supplier of raw materials for $200,000.

As part of the deal, Conrad Hubert remained president of the company, whose name was officially changed to the American Ever Ready Company. In addition to the company name change, the trade name “Ever Ready” became “Eveready.” And by the time he died in the 1920s, Hubert had amassed a fortune said to total some $6 million.

Despite the technical flaws in Cowen’s unlikely account, such as the fact that battery-powered lights could not operate for extended periods, the story might have ended with Cowen a bitter old man who gave away the invention of a lifetime. But Cowen plowed the relatively small amount of money he received from the venture back into tinkering. Within a few years, he had come up with another invention—the toy train. Using his middle name—Lionel—he went on to build a miniature railroad empire of toy trains.