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

Chapter 13. What Will They Think of Next?

“Scientists take no needless risks! They take nothing for granted. Boastful or misleading statements are ignored, Entirely!”

—magazine ad for Burgess Batteries, circa 1930

The increased use of batteries and battery-powered devices in the battlefield did not go unnoticed by either industry or the military. Unfortunately, there were few standards for batteries. The common dry cell, known as the No. 6, most likely because it measured six inches high, was one of the few standard battery sizes available. All the rest were more or less ad hoc, assembled in small factories for specific devices, often by hand.

There was talk of standardization as early as 1912, but not much came of it until 1917 when the National Bureau of Standards (today the National Institute of Standards and Technology) met with representatives of the battery industry and the military and other government agencies to develop a set of specifications for batteries. The idea was to set sizes and minimum performance criteria. They also needed to call the batteries something, eventually settling on the easy to remember letters of the alphabet, except for the already well-known No. 6, also called a radio battery.

The results, published after the war in 1919, brought some official order to the situation for the first time. Toy and appliance manufacturers could now design products for specific sizes and voltages, and consumers could buy an electrical product with some assurance that batteries would be available far into the future.

The designations were modified over the years and more sizes added—the AAA, for instance—but now there were exact specifications for sizes and performance. Of course, unofficial standardization had been taking place for some time; radio manufacturers, for instance, designed the shelves inside early cabinet sets to hold specific-sized batteries.

BY THE LATE 1920S AND early 1930s consumer electronics had moved far beyond the novelties of light-up bowties and cane handles. Even flashlights, the most ordinary of electrical gadgets, had evolved. It was possible to buy pocket-sized sterling silver flashlights with fancy engraving or a woman’s compact with a built-in light. And why not? After all, this was the age when accessories like gold lighters and cigarette cases—even the discreet hip flask—were common among the well-heeled.

With standardization, battery companies were pushed to become more competitive and creative. The problem they now faced was how to compete. How do you sell a standardized product? Well, fear works. In one early ad for Eveready, the headline blared: “I POURED A DEATH POTION FOR MY SICK BABY!” The ad then went on to recount in pictures and words how a Long Island housewife accidentally poured a dose of poisonous disinfectant rather than cough medicine in a darkened house. It was only after examining the bottle with a flashlight that she discovered her mistake. “Is it any wonder,” she concluded her tale, “that I now write to let you know that my husband and I have fresh DATED Eveready batteries to thank for our baby’s life?”

Another early ad by Eveready for its Daylo flashlights featured a fireman chastising a young couple, “You should have used a Daylo” while smoke poured from their house in the background.

At around the same time, Burgess Battery Company was taking a more scientific approach to marketing its batteries with an ad that announced, “No Store ‘Around the Corner’ at the South Pole So the Byrd Expedition Couldn’t Take a Chance.” The ad went on to explain that “Scientists take no needless risks.” What could be more credible than a battery approved by scientists? Actually, the founder, Charles Burgess, was a genuine scientist who founded the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Chemistry and was instrumental in the success of Ray-O-Vac. Perhaps that’s why Doc Brown in Back to the Future III chose Burgess No. 6 dry cell batteries to power the walkie-talkies he used to communicate with Marty McFly.

PORTABILITY WAS ALSO MAKING SOME advances, at least in niche products. For instance, it was possible to purchase a battery-powered electronic hearing aid. However, early models, like the Acousticon Model 28, produced in the 1920s, although battery-powered were as large as tabletop radios. The Acousticon was made by the Dictograph Products Company, which also manufactured office intercoms as well as one of the first eavesdropping devices, called the Detective Dictograph, also battery-powered. The Acousticon was intended to be set down on a table; a receiver was then fastened against the ear with a metal band. It was portable only in that there was a handle on top.

Although Ray-O-Vac claims to have invented the first wearable hearing aid in the early 1930s, other manufacturers had already produced wearable tubeless electronic devices that offered some amplification along with a great deal of distortion. It was the advent of vacuum tubes that made the devices practical though still not particularly portable, at least by today’s standards. Batteries pumping out the three or six volts needed to fire up the tubes were bulky and carried in “holsters” under the arm or secured to the leg with cloth bands.

There were even some portable radios, sort of. In the early days, “portable” did not necessarily imply that transportation would be easy. A state-of-the-art line of portable radios made by a California company called Kemper Radio Lab in the 1920s featured the K-5-2 model that required ten batteries to power its five tubes and weighed well over twenty pounds. And then there’s the RCA Victor Model P-31 (circa early 1930s), which was also considered portable. About the size of a small suitcase, the unit weighed in at over forty pounds. Radios were portable only in the sense that they were fitted into a sturdy case that included a handle.