The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution - Henry Schlesinger (2010)
Chapter 5. Not a Gentleman of Science
“Work, finish, publish.”
Arguably, one of Davy’s greatest and most unlikely discoveries was Michael Faraday. Nothing in Faraday’s early life suggested a career in science or the slightest similarity to the well-bred gentlemen who dominated natural philosophy in England. He had neither a comfortable family fortune nor a degree from Cambridge or Oxford. The son of a blacksmith, his formal education had ended at thirteen with his entrance into an apprenticeship to George Ribeau, a Blandford Street bookseller in London in 1804.
Those were the days when bookstore patrons chose the bindings of their books according to taste and budget, and for eight years the young man was kept busy at the glue pots and presses. He could read and do basic sums, necessities in the bookbinding trade, but not much more. However, the young Faraday possessed a quick mind—recognized very early on by his employer—and a nearly insatiable curiosity. What little free time was available to him was spent reading the books in the shop, which set him off on a lifelong quest of self-improvement. He began keeping a journal after it was suggested in a book called The Improvement of the Mind, but it was science that really captured his imagination.
“There were two [books] that especially helped me,” Faraday would write much later in life. “The Encyclopaedia Britannica from which I gained my first notions of electricity, and Mrs. Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry, which gave me my foundation in that science.”
This was the kind of admission that must have at least raised an eyebrow at the time. Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry was, to say the least, an unlikely starting point for one of the great scientific minds of the time. The book was part of a popular series that included Conversations on Political Economy, Conversations on Vegetable Physiology, and Conversations on the History of England.
Conversations on Chemistry was a far cry from the somber lecture halls and even more somber dons of Oxford or Cambridge. Written “Particularly for the Female Sex,” it was a book by a woman for women. Although there wasn’t much chance of offending delicate female sensibilities, even by early nineteenth-century standards of public morality, with talk of compounds and elements, the book assumed little or no prior knowledge of chemistry. Written in a conversational style as a series of genteel conversations between the kindly instructor, Mrs. Bryan (called “Mrs. B.”), and her two eager and ever curious pupils, Emily and Caroline, readers were patiently walked through the very basics, step by well-mannered step. An international bestseller of the day, the book went through an enviable sixteen editions with more than 160,000 copies sold in the United States alone.
Science, particularly chemistry, was still a popular topic of dinner and drawing room discussion. The fictional Mrs. B. and her pupils educated legions of women (and probably a few men) well enough to hold up their end of the conversation. Well-bred men, presumably, did not need feminine primers for their education in such serious matters, having received the basics at college that allowed them to keep up with the latest developments in a suitably masculine fashion.
Access to books was only one piece of Faraday’s early luck. By all accounts, Ribeau was an ideal employer. Unmarried and childless, he fully intended to eventually turn over the business to the bright young man, but Faraday’s mind was firmly set on a career in science. That he was willing to risk the security of an established business—a very good proposition for the son of a blacksmith—for the uncertainty of a career in science was more than just a young man’s optimism.
He was that most rare of creatures, a true believer when it came to science and religion. A member of a gentle Christian sect, the Sandemanians, Faraday was deeply religious and viewed science—the exploration of nature—as an extension of his heartfelt faith. Although we in the twenty-first century debate the conflict of science and religion, Faraday saw no such division. “The book of nature, which we have to read, is written by the finger of God,” he wrote. For Faraday, “unraveling the mysteries of nature was to discover the manifestations of God.”
Filled with the kind of youthful pluck found in the American Horatio Alger books—though seldom in real life—Faraday wrote to Joseph Banks, then president of the Royal Society, requesting a job, any job. When no response was forthcoming, he went to the Royal Society in person and was told by a functionary that Mr. Banks had said “the letter required no answer.” Apparently, the young bookstore apprentice was beneath consideration, unworthy of even a reply.
Then came one of those seemingly small events upon which lives turn. One of the bookstore’s customers, William Dance, gave the young man tickets to Davy’s last series of lectures in March and April 1812. Faraday not only eagerly attended, but also took copious notes. Practically transcribing each lecture word for word, he returned to the bookstore and quickly bound the notes—nearly 400 pages complete with misspellings and his own illustrations—and sent the book to Davy along with another letter asking for a job.
Like a character out of a Dickens novel whose life is lifted on a fulcrum of unlikely chance, Faraday was in the right place at precisely the right time. One of the Royal Institution’s lab assistants had recently gotten into an unseemly brawl with an instrument maker and was promptly fired. A replacement was needed and Faraday was installed in the lab as a “scrub” to carry out the drudgework of washing and sorting bottles.
Davy, like the kindly bookstore owner, quickly recognized Faraday’s potential and was soon giving the young man analyses to make on his own, guiding him through experiments. The dexterity and precision learned at bookbinding proved good training for the budding experimentalist, and more experiments followed. Davy, like Ribeau, was childless and saw in Faraday a talented protégé.
As for Faraday, he idolized Davy, but their relationship was often uneasy. In one of the stranger episodes, the newly married Davy, at the end of his tenure at the Royal Institution, took Faraday along as an assistant on a trip abroad in 1813. Receiving special permission from Napoleon, Davy and Faraday stopped in France on the way to Italy. The trip, by some accounts, was a horror for the unworldly Faraday, who had never been far from London. His hero, Davy, was apparently cordial enough, but the new Mrs. Davy treated her husband’s protégé more as a servant than a lab assistant. In letters he wrote home, Faraday bitterly bemoans her as “haughty and proud to an excessive degree.” Returning to England, Davy was installed as president of the Royal Society, a post that Newton had once held, though not before securing Faraday the superintendent’s position at the Royal Institution.
Tireless and always curious, Faraday worked vigorously in the lab, adopting the motto, “Work, finish, publish.” Even by the standards of the day, which prized hard work and results, his reputation for long hours of experimentation was quickly established. “Let no one start at the difficult task and think the means far beyond him,” Faraday wrote. “Everything may be gained by energy and perseverance.”
Although lacking the formal ambition of Davy, and refusing most honors and accolades, Faraday kept up a lifelong routine of self-improvement. When he began lecturing at the Royal Institution, he placed his elocution teacher in the front row to critique the performance later. Friends were also invited and held up cards during the lectures printed with the words “Too fast” or “Too slow.” His lectures eventually surpassed even those of Davy in popularity, attracting the attention of Charles Dickens, who would later request his notes to publish in Household Words, a general-interest magazine he published for nine years. More intriguing still was a brief flirtation Faraday carried on with the brilliant Augusta Ada Byron Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, who was a pioneer in computing theory.
Even as his fame and reputation grew, Faraday’s relationship with Davy remained difficult in ways that went beyond the usual mentor and protégé. No matter how brilliant his lectures and experiments, in Britain’s rigid social order Faraday was decidedly not one of the gentlemen of science. This point was made clear when Davy and William Hyde Wollaston tried an experiment and failed. Faraday, overhearing the details, went on to complete the experiment successfully, then committed the grave error of writing up the paper without crediting his social betters. Making the situation even worse was the fact that it was no ordinary experiment, but a breakthrough.
Faraday had apparently heard Davy and Wollaston discussing the work of the Danish medical professor Hans Christian Ørsted. During a lecture to his students in 1820, Ørsted left a compass near a completed circuit running from a voltaic pile and noticed that the compass needle twitched when moved closer to the circuit.
It was a major discovery. Electricity, it seemed, was not like water in a sealed pipe; fully contained within the confines of a conductor. Rather, it created an invisible field of emanating waves around whatever carried it. What Ørsted discovered was the electromagnetic field and electromagnetism. From this phenomenon, all manner of devices were possible.
After hearing about the discovery, the French scientist André-Marie Ampère created a magnetic field by forming wires into coils. He later invented the galvanometer—a voltmeter—by simply taking a few turns of wire around a compass. The slightest amount of current would create an electromagnetic field and cause the needle to twitch. This was a major technological step forward in measuring minute currents. A few crude voltmeters and other methods of measuring substantial currents (such as how quickly they melted a length of thin wire) did exist, but detecting very small charges presented a problem. Over the years scientists had taken to applying live wires to the tongue and tasting the voltage or even judging the pain it caused by inserting wires into tiny cuts in the skin. Ampère’s invention was the most sensitive measurement device of electric current since Galvani’s frog legs.
In fact, Ørsted was not the first to notice the phenomenon. In 1802 the Italian jurist Gian Domenico Romagnosi had made a very similar discovery, but he published his findings in an obscure journal, Gazetta di Trentino, and they went largely unread by others working in the field. Ørsted’s independent discovery and subsequent publication would change not only the way small currents were measured but also would lead the investigation of electricity off into new directions. Although the voltaic cell was well established as a scientific instrument, it was still the chemists who were reaping the majority of rewards from its use. The idea that electricity could prove a practical force beyond the study of the molecular level of compounds and elements did not occur to the majority of those working in the field.
In the mid-1820s, William Sturgeon, a shoemaker’s apprentice who ran away to join the Royal Army, invented the electromagnet based on reading about Ørsted’s discovery. The self-taught Sturgeon, who was by then lecturing at the Royal Military College, wrapped a few turns of wire attached to a battery around a seven-ounce piece of iron and lifted nine pounds. Electricity—invisible, weightless, and mysterious—could be made to perform labor.
The concept Davy and Wollaston discussed, but Faraday proved, was to make a wire rotate within a magnetic field, in effect creating a simple electric motor. Faraday placed a magnet upright in a cup of mercury connected to one terminal of a battery. The second terminal was connected to a wire with one end in the mercury. When the circuit running through the wire, mercury, and battery was completed, the wire began rotating around the magnet. In another version he made a magnet rotate around a wire.
© Chris Costello
Faraday called his gadget a “rotator” (today called a homopolar motor) and the paper he wrote detailing its function brought him international fame. Later, when William Gladstone, the future prime minister, asked what possible good his tiny electrical motor was, Faraday was said to have responded, “I have no idea, but no doubt you’ll find some way to tax it.”
Wollaston’s fury at Faraday’s success went far beyond the natural rivalry still common among practitioners of science today. Faraday had clearly defied the class system so much a part of Regency London. What’s more, Faraday lacked not only a gentleman’s education from Oxford or Cambridge, but also the knowledge of advanced mathematics that came with it—including Newton’s inspired achievement, calculus. For many in the Royal Institution, Faraday was clearly not one of the gentlemen of science, but rather, a talented upstart tinkerer.
Wollaston, by contrast, was not only of the correct background, but was also brilliant with a long string of discoveries to his name. Realizing his mistake, Faraday wrote an anguished letter of apology, but the damage was done. The letter elicited only an icy response and Davy, siding with Wollaston, twice blocked Faraday’s membership into the Royal Society.
Much later, when preparing a book of his work, Faraday would add a footnote to the paper stating, “This is a very precious paper for me. I published it as a result of work given to me by Humphry Davy at a time when my fear far exceeded my knowledge.” At the time, both Davy and Wollaston were long dead and the feud largely forgotten by all but Faraday.
Undeterred, Faraday kept hard at work and in August 1831, he hit upon the idea of induction, proving the principle behind a generator creating an electrical current by moving a magnet inside a coil of wire. The idea was simple—if electricity could produce magnetism, as Sturgeon had clearly demonstrated—then magnetism should produce electricity. He took a paper cylinder and wound it with coils of wire, then connected it to a battery and a primitive voltmeter. He then began moving a bar magnet in and out of the hollow center of the tube, making the needle of the voltmeter jump. Somehow the simple act of moving the magnet had created a burst of electrical current in the coil.
A year after Faraday announced his discovery, Hyppolyte Pixii, a young Parisian instrument maker, created the first electric generator by spinning a magnet over a coil with a hand crank. Within a decade, improvements on Pixii’s design made industrial generators possible.
Faraday was also bringing a new scientific language into use with the help of William Whewell, the esteemed philosopher and teacher, who provided the words for battery components still in use today, including “anode” (the negative electrode that gives up the charge) and “cathode” (the positive electrode that accepts the electrons). This was no trivial matter. A standardized terminology is an essential component for scientific and technical research.
Before he ended his career in quiet retirement, Faraday had made enormous strides in the field of electrochemistry. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Davy, he discovered the elements sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. He also set down several laws regarding electrolysis—the separation of compounds into their elements—in Faraday’s Law of Induction and Laws of Electrolysis.
“Electricity is often called wonderful, beautiful; but it is so only in common with the forces of nature,” he wrote in his lecture notes. “The beauty of electricity, or of any other force, is not that the power is mysterious and unexpected, but that it is under law, and that the taught intellect can even now govern it largely. The human mind is placed above and not beneath it.”
Sadly, in the end, Faraday was left behind. Mathematics was quickly becoming the language of science as investigations into nature became more and more complex, and Faraday just could not keep up. In a letter written toward the end of his life to the eminent scientist James Clerk Maxwell, he wrote,
There is one thing I would be glad to ask you. When a mathematician engaged in investigation of physical actions and results has arrived at his own conclusions, may they not be expressed in common language, as fully, clearly and definitely as in mathematical formulae? If so, would it not be a great boon to such as we to express them so—translating them out of their hieroglyphics that we might work upon them by experiment?
By the 1830s, science was changing. Electricity, though still an inexplicable force, was offering hints that it could, very possibly, be useful for something. After all, it had been made to perform the simple physical labor of lifting things with an electromagnet. Science was also expanding beyond philosophy. Whewell, philosopher and friend of Coleridge and Faraday, coined the word to describe what was happening. The word was “scientist.” It was not a word that caught on quickly among the gentlemen of science who viewed the study of the physical world as an extension of abstract reasoning and themselves as philosophers unraveling nature’s innermost secrets. It had a tradesman’s sound to it and was often used as a pejorative.
IN AMERICA, FARADAY’S COUNTERPART, JOSEPH Henry, was also hard at work. Although divided by an ocean and thousands of miles, Henry and Faraday led strangely parallel lives. Born within just a few years of each other—Henry in 1797 and Faraday in 1791—the two scientists saw their most productive years as well as their research overlap.
That Henry did not attain the same historic stature as Faraday does not diminish his contributions. Few scientists appear in history books alongside inventors such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, or Samuel F. B. Morse. Names like Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Isaac Newton are among the handful of exceptions that attest to the rule.
One reason is the basic fact that to a large degree, the most enduring legacy of science is knowledge. Scientific experimentation, abstractions, and discovery of underlying principles hold little popular appeal today compared to products that transform everyday life or create vast fortunes. Successful inventors leave behind foundations and museums while successive, evolving versions of their original devices carry their name forward. For better or worse, popular history belongs to the clever engineers who successfully apply scientific principles and not to the scientific explorers.
Although Henry, like Faraday and Davy, dabbled with inventions, his contributions were largely obscure or were overshadowed by other well-known names who perfected his concepts for the marketplace. While the media of the day in Europe was heaping praise on Faraday and his scientific demonstrations, Henry labored in relative obscurity for much of his most productive years. He was slow to publish, favoring the immediacy of teaching and experimentation. And, too, unlike Faraday, he was not at the center of Europe’s tightly linked scientific establishment. Though not quite the scientific backwater it had been during Franklin’s day in the eighteenth century, America still lagged behind Europe when it came to pure research.
Both Faraday and Henry were raised in less than affluent families with no tradition of education. Born in upstate New York, near Albany, Henry, like Faraday, lost his father and apprenticed at an early age. However, unlike Faraday, Henry’s apprenticeship to a watchmaker and silversmith by the name of John F. Doty held little interest or opportunity for the lad. The watchmaker, in sharp contrast to Faraday’s well-intentioned Mr. Ribeau, found the young man singularly unsuited for the work. While Faraday had taken an interest and exhibited genuine talent for the book business, Henry was notably less enthusiastic when it came to his trade. He tended to daydream at the workbench and showed no particular aptitude for the type of meticulous labor required in dealing with escapements and springs.
In any event, it didn’t matter. Doty’s business went under in the panic of 1819, terminating Henry’s apprenticeship after just two years. Without a clear career path, the youth seemed to drift from job to job, working as a handyman, metalworker, and surveyor. An avid amateur actor, at one point he even toyed with dedicating himself to a life on the stage. Then, according to several slightly varying legends, he found his way to science, like Faraday, through a book. In one version of the story, he happened to climb down into a church basement to find the book lying about. In another account, a boarder in the house where he lived left the book behind. Whether it was through divine providence or simple carelessness, Henry was hooked. The title, according to Henry’s own recollection, was Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, Astronomy and Chemistry by G. Gregory, D.D., Vicar of Westham.
In the same way that Ms. Marcet’s primer inspired Faraday to take up science, the good vicar’s tome had a similar effect on Henry. But while Faraday had the benefit of finding himself at the Royal Institution, Henry’s newly discovered ambition was provided no such opportunity. Finally, after finishing his education at the Albany Academy for Boys, he drifted into teaching mathematics and natural philosophy at the school while supplementing his meager income by tutoring. Among his notable students was Henry James, the theological philosopher and father of William James, the philosopher, and Henry James, the writer.
Henry also began a series of experiments in chemistry and meteorology in his spare time, though not much seems to have come of these inquiries. Then, on a trip to New York City in 1827, he happened to see a demonstration of Sturgeon’s electromagnet. Here was an ordinary piece of iron suddenly given life and power through a small voltaic pile—a simple chemical reaction. Fascinated, Henry managed to duplicate the wondrous device, voltaic pile and all, after reading about it in the journal Annals of Philosophy. Like Sturgeon’s original, Henry’s replica lifted nine pounds. It was the first electromagnet built in the United States.
Not content to simply copy the device, he began experimenting. The trick to increasing the magnet’s strength, he discovered, was in the wire coil or helix that encased the horseshoe-shaped iron core. Unlike Sturgeon, who had taken only a few loose turns of wire around the core, Henry began wrapping the wire tightly against the iron and using more of it in the process. In the days prior to insulated wires he managed to avoid short circuits by varnishing the iron core and carefully keeping each turn of the wire separated. In the end, he found the device could be made to lift twenty pounds with the same power source that had lifted nine.
Encouraged by this small success, he kept going, replacing the type of primitive, low-output battery Sturgeon had used for a larger Cruickshank trough with twenty-five pairs of zinc and copper plates to provide more power, and winding the wire tighter and tighter around increasingly larger iron cores. When the wires began crackling with current, he insulated them (at least according to legend) with lengths of silk ribbon from his wife’s petticoats. His experiments took him beyond anything Sturgeon, or even Faraday, had accomplished when it came to electromagnetism.
For instance, through trial and error he discovered that if a single cell powered the battery, it was best to use multiple lengths of wire wound tightly around the core in parallel. However, when using multiple cells, the electromagnet performed best when wound with a single long strand of wire.
Soon after, Henry came across what was to be one of his greatest discoveries. Creating a parallel circuit—multiple batteries attached positive to positive—the voltage remained the same no matter how many cells or batteries he wired, but the amperage (amps) increased in proportion to the number of connections made. Conversely, by creating a series circuit—the positive terminal connected to the negative terminal and the negative to the positive—he doubled the volts and got the same amperage. To use the common, though somewhat inaccurate, analogy: if an electrical circuit is like water in a pipe, then volts are a measure of the water pressure and amps a measure of the volume of water moving through the pipe. Henry called these difference types of measurements “intensity” and “quantity.” The use of “volts” and “amps” would not become the official terminology until 1893.
In a very short time Henry and his assistant, Philip Ten Eyck, built an even larger magnet that weighed 21 pounds and was capable of hoisting some 750 pounds when mounted on a scaffold. For those who had never seen an electromagnet, which included just about everyone at the time, the device was very much like a magician’s trick. Proof that the seemingly simple device powered by just a battery had actually lifted a blacksmith’s iron anvil was provided when Henry cut the power to the magnet and sent the anvil crashing dramatically to the floor.
This was not the fluttering of a compass needle or the playful attraction of a lodestone, but power on a scale to inspire awe. It is not difficult to imagine those who witnessed Henry’s demonstration being as “thunderstruck” as St. Augustine when introduced to the diminutive power of a lodestone. Calling it the “Albany magnet,” Henry wrote a paper detailing its design and sent it off to Benjamin Silliman, professor of chemistry at Yale University and editor of the respected American Journal of Science. In the editor’s note accompanying the paper’s publication in January of 1831, Silliman pointed out, “He [Henry] has the honor of having constructed by far, the most powerful magnets that have ever been known, and his last…is eight times more powerful than any magnet hitherto known in Europe.”
Silliman’s praise was not incidental. In Utrecht in the Netherlands, Gerard Moll had also seen Sturgeon’s magnet and set about making improvements through meticulous experimentation. Increasing the number of turns of wire around the core, the Dutch professor had hoisted 75 pounds and then 154 pounds. Wasting no time, he quickly announced his discovery in the Edinburgh Journal of Science, and his magnet was hailed as the most powerful in the world. In large part, Henry’s belated publication of his findings was in response to Moll’s efforts.
Henry followed up publication of the paper with a proposal to build an even larger magnet for Yale. Silliman enthusiastically accepted the offer. The magnet Henry had in mind would have a core that weighed nearly 60 pounds and would lift an estimated 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. In the end, the device surpassed even Henry’s expectations, hoisting more than a ton. The core itself was constructed of an octagonal iron horseshoe 30 inches long, a foot high, and 3 inches thick. The core was wrapped with 800 feet of copper wire divided into 26 strands.
© Chris Costello
The battery Henry designed for the magnet was made up of concentric cylinders of copper and zinc, which he calculated offered about five square feet of active surface area. This measurement is significant not only because it reveals how batteries were still measured in terms of metallic surface area, but because Moll’s less powerful magnet was also considerably less efficient, requiring some 170 square feet of surface area to power it up.
By the standards of the day, Henry’s electromagnets were impressive devices. Never before had electricity been used to perform such heavy lifting, hoisting more than a man could manage without levers or pulleys—and doing it with the mysterious power of electricity generated by careful arrangement of metal and chemicals. Unlike a steam engine whose complex mechanical workings could be more or less understood through careful examination of boilers or gears, one needed to know the principles of electromagnetism and batteries to fully grasp the workings of the magnet.
It did not take a great leap of imagination to see that the power generated by the simple device would someday find use in industry. Henry himself had seen the practical potential for electromagnets, writing, “At the conclusion of the series of experiments which I described in Silliman’s Journal, there were two applications of the electro-magnet in my mind: one the production of a machine to be moved by electro-magnetism, and the other the transmission of or calling into action power at a distance.”
Not long afterward Henry hit on another idea. Using a small battery and increasingly long lengths of wire attached to a modest electromagnet, he was able to attract a piece of iron remotely. Again, he was experimenting with scale, though not entirely in terms of sheer power, but also in distance. For these experiments, as with his electromagnets, he used lengths of uninsulated bell wire, which received its name from its primary use in the bell pulls of household bells that summoned servants or announced visitors. A common enough item at the time, bell wire retained its name long after manufacturers had begun insulating it with a thin layer of rubber or soft plastic and its use had shifted from mechanical to electrical applications.
Soon, Henry replaced the iron chunk with a homemade device that clicked, and then he replaced the clicker with a magnetized metal bar mounted on the wall, which pivoted next to a small bell. When current ran through the wire, the magnetized rod obediently turned on its axis to ring the bell, providing an early germ of an idea for the telegraph. The device was not unlike Ørsted’s compass needle that twitched when caught by a magnetic field or the primitive voltmeters that followed. In the end, Henry strung more than a thousand feet of bell wire around the walls of his classroom at the Albany Academy to test the flow of electricity.
It didn’t take long before Henry’s work with electromagnets caught the attention of Amos Eaton, a consultant for Penfield Iron Works in what was then known as Crown Point, New York, on Lake Champlain. The problem the firm faced was separating high-grade iron ore from lesser-quality ore. The solution Henry arrived at—similar to a cotton gin—was a wooden cylinder into which hundreds of metallic and electromagnetized rods were inserted. The high-caliber iron simply stuck to the teeth to be brushed off and sent to the furnaces for smelting. Electromagnets had found their first industrial application, and shortly thereafter Crown Point was renamed Point Henry.
THEN IN 1831, HENRY BUILT his first electric motor, powering it with a voltaic battery. “I have lately succeeded in producing motion in a little machine, by a power which I believe has never before been applied in mechanics—by magnetic attraction and repulsion,” he wrote.
The “little machine” was made up of a nine-inch iron bar wrapped with copper wire and mounted horizontally so that it rocked like a seesaw. Two permanent magnets of the same polarity were mounted under each side of the bar with two thimbles of mercury attached to a voltaic cell positioned under each end of the bar. So when a wire dangling from one end of the bar dipped into one thimble of mercury, it completed the circuit and activated the electromagnet that repelled it away from the permanent magnet, forcing the other end to dip, which had the same effect. According to Henry, the machine could work at approximately 75 “vibrations a minute” for about an hour, which was as long as the battery lasted.
It was, according to historians, the first device that showed potential for electricity to perform “work.” Two years later—in 1833—William Ritchie independently invented an electric motor based on the same principle in England, though his battery-powered device moved in a circular, rather than seesawing, motion. And in 1834 Thomas Edmundson of Baltimore, Maryland, modified Henry’s machine to move in a circular motion. While it is likely that Ritchie had no previous knowledge of Henry’s original seesaw device, after much prodding by Henry, he did eventually offer some measure of credit to the American inventor and scientist.
The little seesawing motor caused a stir. It seemed possible that electricity might someday be made to perform all manner of work, perhaps eventually even replace the steam engine. Henry remained skeptical. It was not the potential of electromagnetic power that reined in his enthusiasm; it was the limitations of batteries. For instance, the battery he built for Silliman and Yale was powerful, but that power was wholly reliant on the imperfect battery technology of the day. With the exception of the device he built for the ironworks, batteries were still largely confined to the laboratory environment and produced only limited power.
Using enough batteries, it was, of course, possible to generate sufficient electricity to power a large electric motor. Someone might take the idea, improve upon it, and increase its scale, just as Henry had done with Sturgeon’s electromagnet. Such a motor could, at least theoretically, perform work, but coal was still more economical and the technology more or less perfected. Batteries were expensive and their expense, along with their size, increased with the amount of power desired.
Henry was right to remain a skeptic. Batteries were far from ready for widespread use in industry. One major obstacle was the polarization that took place within the cell, slowing the oxidation and the flow of current. For example, in a simple battery with a zinc anode and copper cathode, positive hydrogen ions released from the zinc during oxidation accumulated on the negatively charged copper to form a thin film of tiny bubbles that reduced the output. The same chemical reaction that set free the electrons also eventually blocked the flow of electricity. And, too, the electrolyte and electrodes had to be changed or cleaned frequently.
To solve the problem, scientists hit on a number of solutions, none of them particularly elegant. At the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Robert Hare invented a battery he called a “deflagrator,” basically a battery in which the plates could be easily removed from the trough to disperse the bubbles on a regular basis. Well suited for the laboratory, the deflagrator wasn’t particularly practical for the outside world.
It wasn’t until the 1840s that Sir William Robert Grove would solve this problem by creating a battery that included a zinc anode and platinum cathode with a porous material between them and two different acidic substances or electrolytes—sulfuric acid for the anode and nitric acid for the cathode. Grove’s nitric acid battery essentially depolarized itself.
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary coincidences that saw the work of Henry and Faraday overlap was the nearly simultaneous discovery of induction in the early 1830s. Although Faraday is generally credited with the discovery, Henry took the concept a step further. Clearly not a follower of Faraday’s “Work, finish, publish” philosophy, many of Henry’s most important experiments exist in a volume called Lectures on Natural Philosophy by Professor Henry (1844), compiled by one of his students, William J. Gibson. In one particularly intriguing experiment, Henry described how a discharged or “sparked” Leyden jar in one room was picked up by a coil of wire in another room. He called the finding “induction at a distance.”
According to Gibson’s transcription, Henry stated,
Hence the conclusion that every spark of electricity in motion exerts these inductive effects at distances indefinitely great (effects apparent at distances of one-half mile or more) are another ground for supposition that electricity pervades all space…A fact no more improbable than that light from a candle (probably another kind of wave or vibration of the same medium) should produce sensible effect on the eye at the same distance.
It was a stunning piece of scientific reasoning. However, it would take years before it was proven and further demonstrated by Heinrich Hertz and James Clerk Maxwell. Eventually it would form the basis for radio transmissions. Today, Henry receives scant credit for his findings regarding induction at a distance or transmission of electrical impulse. That is not to say he received none. Just as Volta is remembered through the volt and Ampère through the amp, levels of induction are today measured by the henry.
Like Faraday, Henry was a true believer, though he lacked the support and considerable resources of the Royal Institution. Publishing only infrequently, he eschewed patents, thinking science would progress faster without them and blaming them for holding European science back. This was the type of attitude that Franklin had adopted, but much had happened since Franklin’s day.
The Industrial Revolution, which began in the mid-eighteenth century in Great Britain, was now blossoming, even in America. Artisans were giving way to larger manufacturing concerns that were adopting principles of engineering to create ever-larger and more complex production processes, and perhaps most significantly, the courts were getting better at enforcing patent laws. Much of science, once viewed as largely hobbyists’ pursuit, was edging closer to the realm of commerce. The high-minded approach that had garnered Franklin praise was increasingly seen as naïve. “I did not then consider it compatible with the dignity of science to confine the benefits which might be derived from it to the exclusive use of any individual,” he wrote late in life, but then added, “In this I was perhaps too fastidious.”
APPROACHED BY THE COLLEGE OF New Jersey in Princeton (renamed Princeton University in 1896), Henry wrote back saying, “Are you aware of the fact that I am not a graduate of any college and that I am principally self-educated?” In the end, it didn’t matter. By 1832, with the support of Silliman at Yale, he was comfortably ensconced as a professor in Princeton and experimenting in a newly built laboratory, continuing his experiments with electricity and battery power. In 1834, he hit on the idea of creating a battery whose output could be increased and decreased at will. Using zinc encased in copper plates, each about nine inches wide and twelve inches deep, he fitted them into a slotted box arranged as one entire group of eleven and then added eight individual cells. He then connected the cells to a crank mechanism to raise and lower either the entire group of eleven or any of the individual eight cells.
From our own twenty-first-century vantage point, Henry’s battery is both technically incongruous and ingeniously admirable. There is something odd about controlling electrical output with a mechanical device that resembled nothing so much as the mechanism for hoisting and lowering sails on a ship. It was also, as engineers say, an elegant solution, at least for its time.
One of Henry’s more enduring discoveries was the transmission of electrical impulses over great distances through wires. In 1835 or 1836, he had replaced his wire looped around the room at the Albany Academy with wire strung between buildings on the Princeton campus. Enlisting the help of students, he significantly increased the scale of his experiments, just as he had done with Sturgeon’s magnet. What he discovered is that current steadily loses its power when transmitted over long distances. To keep the current flowing at high levels from point A to point B, he engineered a device that would open and close another, secondary circuit along the way with its own smaller battery and electromagnet. The device would later become known as a “relay” and was essential to the development of the long-distance telegraph. Without relays, current moving through the wire simply became too weak to detect after a few miles.
AFTER SOME FOURTEEN YEARS, HENRY moved from Princeton to the not yet fully formed Smithsonian Institution, where he became secretary and played a pivotal role in one of the more interesting chapters in American science. Founded on roughly the same principles as the Royal Institution by James Smithson, a British subject, the Smithsonian was to be the legacy of a man who would never see the final result.
Although an early member of the Royal Institution, Fellow of the Royal Society, and enthusiastic experimenter, Smithson felt he was never accorded the full respect due a gentleman of science. The illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Macie, a lineal descendant of King Henry VII, he was accepted for his lineage but never entirely welcomed into British society because of his out-of-wedlock birth. Frustrated, he left En gland and set up residence in Paris on the rue Montmartre, where he welcomed American visitors.
“The best blood in England flows in my veins; on my father’s side I am a Northumberland, and on my mother’s side I am related to kings, but this avails me not. My name shall live in the memory of man when the title of Northumberland and the Percys are extinct and forgotten.”
Apparently realizing he would never make his mark through the fruits of genius in the same way as a Newton, Cavendish, or Davy, Smithson’s bid for scientific immortality was the Smithsonian Institution, which he established by leaving the bulk of his fortune “…to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name Smithsonian Institution an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The fortune came to 105,960 gold sovereigns, 8 shillings, and 7 pence (and arrived in the United States wrapped in paper).
There is little doubt that Smithson had in mind something along the lines of the Royal Institution and its charter for “…diffusing the Knowledge, and facilitating the general Introduction of Useful Mechanical Inventions and Improvement; and for teaching, by Courses of Philosophical Lectures and Experiments, the application of Science to the common Purposes of Life.”
What Smithson envisioned was significant. America still lagged far behind Europe in science and even basic industrial skills. Under British law certain skilled tradesmen deemed valuable were forbidden to emigrate. In one notable case, two brothers named Hodgson, from Manchester, camouflaged their tools as fruit trees, sending them ahead to America on a separate ship.
Yet for nine years Congress squabbled over just what “…for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men” really meant, maneuvering politically and consulting with the best minds they could find, including Faraday and Henry. John Quincy Adams wanted the money to go to an observatory while others argued for a national library or a college. In the end, Congress decided on a library, museum, and art gallery. Henry proved instrumental in laying the foundation of the Smithsonian, ensuring that it would endure.
LONG BEFORE HENRY ARRIVED AT the Smithsonian, his work caught the attention of Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith from Brandon, Vermont. Born in 1802 into modest circumstances, Davenport was apprenticed at an early age. The apprenticeship apparently “took,” since he went into the trade and by most accounts made a good living. However, he also maintained a lifelong habit of reading and self-improvement, supplementing his spotty education, which included just three years of formal schooling.
By most accounts there was absolutely nothing to distinguish Davenport from the thousands of other smiths who set up shop in small towns throughout New England—that is, until he happened to visit the Penfield Iron Works in 1833 and saw the industrial magnet that extracted the high-grade iron ore. It was something very much like love at first sight. The young blacksmith became entranced by the machine as well as by a simple electromagnet the ironworks had on hand. Later he would describe the magnet as “…an electro magnet weighing about three pounds, to which were attached two sets of cups consisting of copper, or zinc, cylinders to be set in earthen quart mugs.” Unfortunately, the worker describing the machine to Davenport mistakenly called the electromagnet a battery and the battery the “cups.” For years, Davenport would likewise mislabel the components until he was finally set straight.
Davenport’s enthusiasm apparently got the better of him, and he offered to buy the small, four-pound demonstration electromagnet from the Iron Works. Using money intended for the purchase of iron and borrowing from one of his brothers, he eventually bought the magnet for $75.00. Probably viewing the purchase as a whim, friends and family suggested he set it up in his blacksmith’s shop and charge admission to watch it in action. In time, and with a little luck, he might make the best of a foolish choice and even recoup some or all of his investment.
But Davenport had other ideas. Following in the footsteps of Franklin, he set about dismantling the device, piece by piece, to learn its secrets. With his wife taking notes, Davenport meticulously disassembled the battery and in a short time managed to duplicate the device, using (according to legend) his wife’s wedding gown to insulate the tightly wrapped wires around the core. He then set about experimenting.
Within a year he had built a rotary motor that reached thirty revolutions a minute—though some accounts place the number much lower. It was not by any stretch of the imagination a very practical piece of equipment. It was not even wholly original. Henry and Faraday had both created small motors. Davenport, the most impractical of practical men, saw in the little device the potential for industrial use.
The goal of creating a practical piece of equipment must have seemed tantalizingly close for the Vermont blacksmith. After all, he had witnessed Henry’s magnetic device at the ironworks, knew that electromagnets were capable of performing labor—lifting more weight than even a grown man could manage—and had a proof of concept in the little motor. What more could a young, ambitious inventor desire? It was only a matter of applying labor and brain power to the problem and somehow bringing these disparate elements together in a single device.
All but abandoning his blacksmith trade, he stubbornly kept at the task, continuing to refine his little motor to the exclusion of almost everything else. Mocked by his more sensible neighbors and with his business falling into neglect, he asked his local pastor’s advice and was told, “If this wonderful power was good for anything, it would have been in use long ago.” Ignoring the counsel, Davenport forged on.
Like Faraday and Henry, Davenport was a true believer, though it genuinely seems that his enthusiasm far exceeded his grasp of the scientific principles. In the historical record, he embodied one of the most enduring of all American myths: the lone inventor of humble beginnings tinkering away in the homey isolation of his workshop. Unfortunately, science does not particularly favor mythologies, even compelling ones that nurture our sense of infinite possibilities.
Davenport did eventually venture out of his workshop in search of funds to continue his research and meet with those who could offer technical advice. At Middlebury College, he visited Professor Edward Turner. He began reading scientific journals, including Silliman’s, where he discovered Henry’s work. Unlike Henry, he did take out a patent on his device and in due course ended up forming a company and issuing stock in an attempt to fund his research as well as extend patents to Europe. He made stops at the Rensselaer Institute in Troy, New York, in Saratoga Springs, New York, and in Boston in search of financing and then at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, seeking advice and financing. Finally, he arrived at Henry’s doorstep in Princeton.
The legendary scientist did offer some kind words and advised the young inventor to continue his search, though he suggested building the device on a smaller scale. A smaller version, he reasoned, would not only prove less expensive to produce; defects in a smaller, experimental piece of equipment would be looked upon more charitably by potential investors than those in what appeared to be a completed industrial version.
However, in a letter to Silliman following his meeting with Davenport, Henry seemed decidedly less enthusiastic toward the blacksmith, writing, “I felt considerably interested in the welfare of the Inventor and with friendly motives advised him to abandon the invention.”
Of course, Davenport did no such thing. Obsessed, he kept plugging along, scraping up funds where he could and garnering press coverage in hopes of luring in more investors. In the New York Herald in April 1837, the headline read: “A Revolution in Philosophy: Dawn of a New Civilization.” Unlike Henry, journalists of the day had only to see the small motor in action to be convinced of its eventual use. After a detailed description of Davenport’s motor, the unnamed journalist wrote, “There can be no doubt, in our mind, but the days of steam power, and animal power, and water power, are gone forever. This is no idle vision—no fancy’s sketch.”
Davenport managed somehow to generate enough power from crude batteries to turn a lathe and later apply the motor to a miniature electromagnetic railroad car that he used for demonstrations, the first electromagnetic player piano, and even a printing press on which he published an ill-fated newsletter called, naturally, The Electro-Magnet. But unable to raise sufficient funds, the projects all but vanished, and Davenport—as heroic as he was—became a small footnote in history.
PROGRESS WAS ALSO MOVING APACE in Europe. Nicholas Callan, an Irish priest who was a contemporary of Henry’s, became fascinated with electricity while studying in Rome. Appointed to the chair of natural philosophy at Maynooth College in the 1820s, he began a series of experiments that closely paralleled Henry’s. At one point he built what was said to be the world’s largest battery by joining more than 500 cells and 30 gallons of acid. The battery, according to reports at the time, could hoist over two tons.
And, in one of those strange instances in the history of science, his most stunning invention doesn’t bear his name. In 1836, Callan discovered that by running a current through a couple of turns of heavy wire around an iron core situated near a smaller core with many turns of fine wire, the current was increased in the second coil. What he had discovered was the induction coil—a device capable of efficiently increasing current. However, unappreciated at Maynooth—where religion rather than science was central to the curriculum—Callan’s invention was soon forgotten, and Heinrich Ruhmkorff, a German-born instrument maker in France, took the credit and put his name on the device.
DESPITE DAVENPORT’S APPARENT FAILURE, MORE electric motors began to emerge. In 1838, the Scottish inventor Robert Davidson built a wide variety of electrically powered devices, including an electric-powered locomotive, which he called a “Galvani.” It chugged along at a steady four miles per hour but was calculated to be forty times more expensive to run on its zinc and copper batteries than on coal.
Then, in 1839, Moritz Hermann Jacobi, a German scientist working in Russia, built a battery-powered boat at the behest of Tsar Nicholas I. Twenty-eight feet long and seven feet wide, it featured multiple paddle wheels powered by more than 300 Daniell cells (some accounts list the batteries as Grove cells) and a one-horsepower electromagnetic engine. But in the end, the batteries were simply too heavy and kept the boat from attaining anything near reasonable speed. The experiment was a technical success, but a practical failure, though later in the nineteenth century batteries would power launches up and down the Thames. In 1851, the American Charles Page received a grant from Congress to build a train powered by a hundred Grove batteries. Though marginally faster than Robertson’s train, it still proved unreliable because of problems with the circuitry.
Though still expensive and exotic, battery technology continued to improve almost exclusively through trial and error. And with the ability to produce a steady and relatively long-lasting electric current from newly designed batteries—such as the Grove nitric acid battery—it was only a matter of time before some widespread technology came of it.
In Germany, Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen was also hard at work on batteries in the 1850s. A chemist by training, he is best known today for the Bunsen burner, which he designed for the laboratory at the University of Heidelberg to replace the ad hoc collections of oil lamps that had been standard in labs. Though largely forgotten today, his Bunsen cell or Bunsen battery marked a significant step forward in battery design. By substituting a carbon rod for the much more expensive platinum cathode in a Grove battery, he lowered the cost of batteries forever. For the first time, even the humblest of amateur inventors and less-well-endowed laboratories could afford a reliable power source. And batteries—a source of the mysterious electrical power—were now within the reach of industry.
Those who predicted that electricity would first find its place in physical labor with electric motors proved equally as wrong as those who believed electricity useless or simply an interesting novelty. Given the state of the science and technology, electrical power worked best to power small devices. So, it was in communication—the telegraph—that electrical power found its first widespread application.