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


History in Real Time

“Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature.”

—Michael Faraday

This book has something of an unlikely origin. It was during the course of working on a book about espionage that I became interested in batteries. Because changing the batteries of a piece of spy gear in the field is often inconvenient, if not altogether impossible, power sources are considered a critical component when it comes to intelligence gathering. The engineers and scientists who dream up all the fancy spy gear spend a lot of time worrying about batteries. While surprising, it also made perfect sense. James Bond was never seen popping into a drugstore for a couple of AAs to power up his gadgets, but something had to power them.

The espionage book was a lengthy project, but during my downtime I began making notes about batteries on small index cards. One slim stack of cards very quickly turned into two, then grew into four, and soon expanded into eight. The answer to each question seemed to prompt four more questions. Clearly there was more to batteries than we generally realize.

A little more research revealed that there was almost nothing written about batteries for the nontechnical reader. Of course, it’s possible to find individual books on the chemistry, physics, history, and electronics of batteries, but these are overwhelmingly intended for technical or scientific professionals and academics. They are almost always very narrowly focused and, to be perfectly blunt, pretty dry stuff. Conversely, the vast majority of breathless prose churned out about consumer gadgets touches only briefly on the topic of batteries. All the action is in the user interface—the display, the keypad, the speed, and the apps. By comparison, batteries are generally regarded as somewhat dreary necessities. Even the most diehard tech geeks I know have a hard time mustering enthusiasm for battery technology.

THE FACT IS, BATTERIES NOT only power our current technologically advanced and portable age, but are also largely responsible for virtually all of the early basic scientific research that made today’s gadgets and gizmos possible. Batteries quite literally powered much of the basic science that led to the consumer technology they power today. Without batteries, not only would our cell phones and other gadgets not work; in all likelihood the technology on which they are based would not exist. This is the kind of elegant, circular dynamic that is irresistible to a writer.

However, there is another important aspect. Since batteries are an enabling technology, it’s impossible to understand their significance without providing scientific, historical, and technological context. In writing this book there was very much a sense of being let loose in history’s candy store. Pick a subject, from home appliances to the world’s battlefields, and you’ll find batteries powering up an increasingly sophisticated technology.

And there were more surprises. From the very beginning, literally within weeks of publication describing the first “modern” battery in 1800, scientists began making improvements on the initial design. The quiet, steady evolution to increase battery power and extend life started before they even understood exactly how they worked or the true nature of electricity.

The intent of this book is to draw together those disparate and seemingly unrelated elements to tell the story. If there are detours, it is only because the facts uncovered were either too interesting or too much fun to leave out. As an author, I’d like to believe this is the first book in which Wolfman Jack, Michael Faraday, Lord Byron, and the band Metallica appear between the same covers.