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

Chapter 1. A World without Science

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

—Arthur C. Clarke

In the early 1800s, the Danish curator and archaeologist Christian Jürgensen Thomsen hit on a novel idea for classifying prehistory artifacts. By dividing them into three categories—Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age—he was able to make some sense of his museum’s collection and shed light on civilizations long vanished. What he had done, of course, was create a technological time line with each of the three classifications defined not only by materials, but also by technical skill sets and accumulated knowledge base. Although modified over the years, Thomsen’s three-age system has more or less withstood the test of time.

A hundred years later, F. Scott Fitzgerald would puckishly coin the phrase Jazz Age to define the gaudy up-tempo spree of music, money, bathtub gin, and flappers that defined the decade-long party following World War I. Today we’re told we live in the Digital Age, Wireless Age, and Portable Age, though we have yet to come up with a suitable name for the current convergence of all three.

There is a certain appeal in measuring history against the steady advance of science and technology. For one thing, it provides a welcome relief from the tame textbook pageants of politics, personalities, wars, and dates or the sour revisionist history in which flaws overshadow accomplishments currently in favor. And, with few exceptions, science and technology tend to progress in an orderly, logical manner.1 The time lines are remarkably clear, even in the ancient world.

As far back as 600 BC, Thales of Miletus was already exploring the mysteries of nature. Known as one of the Seven Wise Men of ancient Greece and the father of modern mathematics, Thales left no writing. All that exists of his work are scattered anecdotes from Plato and Aristotle. But even this anecdotal evidence shows the first tenuous, unsteady steps of scientific thought.

In a legend that uncannily parallels the stereotype of the modern absent minded professor, Thales was said to have tumbled into a well (in another version it’s a ditch) while contemplating the stars. And during a military campaign against Persia, he supposedly diverted the Halys River (the present-day Kızıl Irmak River in Turkey) by ordering a channel to be dug that allowed a bridge to be built. While in Egypt, Thales was also reputed to have cleverly worked out a way of calculating the height of the pyramids by measuring their shadows on the ground at the time of day a man’s shadow is equal to his actual height. A neat trick indeed!

Thales’ methodology was simple observation and reason. It was not science in the modern sense of hypothesis and experiment, but rather science based on what was immediately observable. Still, it was founded on logic and was a significant break from the received wisdom of religious myths that permeated ancient thought. For Thales, nature was neither random nor subject to the whim of the gods. This was a major step forward to be sure, but painfully inadequate when it came to understanding complex natural processes and those things either too large or too small to be seen clearly. Even Thales faced insurmountable problems when it came to studying simple electrical and magnetic phenomena.

For instance, amber, fossilized tree resin, was prized in the ancient world particularly among the Greeks, who called it imagelektron—Greek for “gold”—to describe its color, although the term was also used to describe silver. Imported from Burma and traded throughout Europe as early as 1600 BC, it was used in quantity for burial ceremonies by the Greek warrior kings.

Among its more interesting properties, amber could be rubbed to create an electrostatic charge that attracted small pieces of straw, wheat chaff, and thin scraps of copper or iron. Even the most careful observation alone could not reveal the truth that rubbing transferred negatively charged electrons from the cloth or finger to the amber’s dry surface, which then attracted the positively charged scraps of wheat. The phenomenon, which today we call “triboelectricity” (from the Greek word tribimage meaning “to rub”) states that two materials exchange electrons when they come in contact with each other. In the process, they form a bond as charges move from one material to the other. When the contact is broken, some atoms keep an extra electron. For instance, when glass is rubbed with wool, the wool acquires electrons and becomes negative, while the glass gives up electrons to become positively charged. By applying a very generous definition—the ability to maintain an electrical charge—amber could also be called the first battery.

Lodestones—naturally occurring magnets—were also problematic for the ancients, including Thales. How do you explain by observation and logic what lies behind a clearly observed, but wholly unlikely, phenomenon: a rock capable of moving metallic objects? According to Aristotle, Thales believed a magnet attracted iron because it had a soul.

The Greeks, and later the Romans, sought to understand the world through observation and the application of logic as opposed to modern and quantifiable methodologies of theory and experiment. For instance, Aristotle, who is credited with the creation of formal logic, held beliefs regarding the formation of metals that were closer to alchemy than science.

Such was the state of science for centuries; when observation and logic failed, myth and magic filled in the gaps. Still, the idea that nature could be known solely through simple observation and the application of logic became central to European scientific thought and persisted as late as the 1600s. As recently as the early 1900s, Aristotle’s decidedly vague “fifth element”—aether—was still a cause for debate among serious scientists of the day, including Albert Einstein.

The more stubborn myths persisted, echoing through the texts, lending credence to unsubstantiated, often incredible claims. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, the master compiler of nature, included myths and fables alongside his own firsthand observations. In his immense Historia Naturalis, the unicorn is given the same credible treatment as the lion. Without a reliable way to verify the stories that came to him, he dutifully recorded folktales and legends that seem outrageous by modern standards. Among them, that “…near the River Indus there are two mountains, one of which attracts iron and one repels it. A man with iron nails in his shoes cannot raise his feet from the one or put them down on the other.” And why not? Pliny, who was no doubt aware of mysterious magnetic forces, would require only the slightest nudge of imagination to believe those same unseen powers capable of wondrous feats in a faraway land.

To be fair, Pliny was not alone in recording magnetic myths. Far-fetched claims regarding magnets were widely circulated. As with Pliny, these often took the form of tales from foreign lands, as if distance suspended natural laws along with the ability to confirm through firsthand observation. In one technological fable that would mutate and endure for centuries, the ancient architect Timochares began to erect a vaulted roof of lodestones in the Temple of Arsinoe at Alexandria so that an iron statue of the queen could be suspended in midair as if by magic. In variations of the same myth, magnets were used to suspend a statue of Mohammed in a mosque while the Venerable Bede, the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk and author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, wrote that the horse of Bellerophon—Pegasus, which weighed 5,000 pounds—was levitated by the use of magnets on the island of Rhodes. In China, there were legends of fortresses and tombs made with gates of magnetic stone that acted as a security system by attracting metallic weapons and armor.

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© Chris Costello

It is difficult to reconcile the great thinkers—who so keenly and critically mapped the human spirit—giving themselves over to fairy tales. Experimentation in the ancient world, what little of it existed, was the domain of artisans seeking advantage over the competition with closely guarded “trade secrets,” early engineers working with well-understood materials and some basic medicine. There were also the alchemists pursuing their futile goals of riches and immortality. In this way, those things of immediate and obvious value or use did progress in the ancient world. It was easy to see the motivation in creating a new soap or beautiful glass beads or the civic benefit of moving relatively large amounts of water through pipes to a thirsty and dirty population.

However, those phenomena that could not be held in the hand or promise immediate benefit remained in the province of philosophy, myth, and religion. What did a magnet or electrostatic charge offer beyond wonder and mystery?

Magnetism took the lead in what little scientific exploration there was of these phenomena in the ancient world. A lodestone could be held in the hand. Its effects were easily seen and even repeated at will, making it a good candidate for study. On the other hand, electricity could only be known as fleeting shocks of electrostatic charges, mysterious, nearly instantaneous, and singularly difficult to study. The torpedo fish, lightning, and electrostatic charges deposited on pieces of amber were all electrical in nature, though the ancients had no way of definitively judging them as the same elemental force. In a world where reality’s boundaries were defined by what could be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, and heard, even the most basic understanding of electricity was not only highly problematic, but also ripe territory for myth.

The study of electricity and magnets seemed to creep along for centuries. The Roman poet Lucretius, who sought to elevate reason over superstition, described the power of a magnet in verse in his work De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things).

St. Augustine in De civitate dei (City of God) mentions the magnet and its ability to hold a series of iron rings together. “When I first saw it,” he wrote,

I was thunderstruck, for I saw an iron ring attracted and suspended by a stone; and then, as if it had communicated its own property to the iron it attracted, and had made it a substance like itself, this ring was put near another and lifted it up, and as the first ring clung to the magnet, so did the second ring to the first…Who would not be amazed at this virtue of the stone, subsisting as it does, not only in itself, but transmitted through so many suspended rings and binding them together by invisible links.

Meanwhile, the myths took root and continued to flourish, expanding as the centuries passed. Tales of lodestones circulated throughout Europe, spread by traders, charlatans, and philosophers. There were lodestones reputed to have the power of discovering thieves and rendering the inhabitants of a house blind. There were lodestones that would absorb iron without adding to their own weight. Lodestones ground up into a powder or held against the flesh with a poultice were touted as cures for colic, insanity, even wounds. It was common wisdom that a lodestone would lose its magnetic power when placed near a diamond or rubbed with garlic and then, miraculously, regain it in full if dipped in the blood of a goat.

Of course, artists could not resist using the mysterious unseen forces—nearly as good as fate, coincidence, or the whim of conflicted gods—to move a story along. Edmund Spenser uses magnetism as a plot device when he describes a magnetic cliff drawing a ship to it in his sixteenth-century epic poem, The Faerie Queene:

On th’other side an hideous Rocke is pight,

Of mightie Magnes stone, whose craggie clift

Depending from on high, dreadfull to sight,

Ouer the waues his rugged armes doth lift,

And threatneth downe to throw his ragged rift

On who so commeth nigh; yet nigh it drawes

All passengers, that none from it can shift:

For whiles they fly that Gulfes deuouring iawes,

They on this rock are rent, and sunck in helplesse wawes.

Not much new about the magnet was discovered until around the eleventh century when references to its value in navigation as a primary component in compasses began to appear, at first in Asia and then in Europe. Suddenly, magnets were more than mystifying curiosities; they could perform a practical, even vital, task—guide ships.

Then in the thirteenth century came an unlikely exploration of the magnet. Pierre de Maricourt, called Petrus Peregrinus (or Peter the Pilgrim, a title that indicated he had visited the Holy Land during the Crusades), was in the engineering corps of the French army during the siege of Lucera in southern Italy, where he worked on fortifications and constructed catapults for bombarding the city. A physician with a minimal amount of technical ability, at some point during the siege he hit on the idea of a perpetual motion machine powered by magnets. The machine would, Peregrinus envisioned, turn a small sphere indefinitely using the attractive forces of magnetism.

During the summer of 1269, he put his thoughts into a letter addressed to his close friend Sigerus de Foucaucourt. Rather than simply describe his machine, Peregrinus first set out to describe lodestones in detail, listing attribute after attribute in an orderly fashion. Although his perpetual motion machine was doomed to failure, the first section of the letter is a landmark of inductive reasoning and magnetic science.

“Out of affection for you, I will write in a simple style about things entirely unknown to the ordinary individual,” he wrote. “But the things that are hidden from the multitude will become clear to astrologers and students of nature and will constitute their delight as they will also be of great help to those that are old and more learned.”

Here was the magnet stripped of speculation, myth, and even poetry. “The disclosing of the hidden properties of this stone is like the art of the sculptor by which he brings figures and seals into existence,” he related. “Although I may call the matters about which you inquire evident and of inestimable value, they are considered by common folks to be illusions and mere creations of the imagination.”

Soon, hand-transcribed copies of the letter, which became known as Epistola Petri Peregrini de Maricourt ad Sygerum de Foucaucourt, militem, de magnet (Letter of Peter Peregrinus of Maricourt, to Sigerus of Foucaucourt, Soldier, concerning the Magnet) began to circulate.

In the pre–printing press age, the vast majority of what little scientific research was undertaken was shared not through scholarly journals or books, but in letters that slowly crisscrossed Europe among a small group of friends and like-minded individuals. In an era when a single book could cost as much as a large tract of land and moveable type was still more than two centuries away, this form of epistolary science was woefully limiting. Nevertheless, Peregrinus’s letter was reproduced and referenced in numerous volumes over the years. It crops up in the Franciscan friar Roger Bacon’s masterwork overview of science, Opus majus (Great Work), written in secret at the request of Pope Clement IV. Bacon, also known as “Doctor Mirabilis” (Wonderful Teacher), would have recognized Peregrinus’s methodology as close to the brand of empiricism he had begun to practice at Oxford and fit into his own category of scientia experimentalis (experimental science). Bacon’s investigations would eventually cause him to run afoul of the Church. Late in life he found himself convicted of novitates suspectas (suspect innovations) and placed under house arrest for more than a decade.