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


Those Troublesome Baghdad Batteries

The mystery began with a flood. In 1936 snowmelt running off the mountains in Turkey flowed downward into small tributaries and streams before entering the Tigris River; snaking its way south through Iraq, the river overflowed its banks before entering the low-lying floodplain and joining the Euphrates on its journey to the Persian Gulf. The floodwaters divided the Iraqi capital, turning the eastern section of Baghdad into an island.

The large stagnant pools that remained in the low-lying areas alarmed public health officials. Fearing an outbreak of malaria, a plan was devised to remove a small loamy hill from an area near Khanaqin in eastern Iraq and fill in the stubborn ponds of standing water. However, almost as soon as work crews began to excavate the mound, they discovered the remains of ancient dwellings. The Baghdad Archaeological Museum was alerted and a small expedition hastily assembled to collect the artifacts. It might have ended there with a modest, though welcome, find, had it not been for Wilhelm Koenig (or König).

An artist by training, Koenig arrived in Iraq from Germany in 1930 with an archaeological expedition and by 1936 found himself a curator at the Baghdad Archaeological Museum. If Koenig’s career move from artistic landscapes to archaeology seems odd, it suited the relatively new museum in a country whose borders were also newly drawn.

Among the artifacts uncovered at the Khujut Rabuah dig was a small broken clay jar with a cylinder made from a rolled sheet of copper and an iron rod. The small, bright yellow oblong jar, about 5 inches high and 3 inches in diameter, was a puzzling thing for Koenig. As with the other artifacts removed from the mound, including several bowls used in rituals, Koenig dated it from the Parthian era, around 200 BC to 200 AD.

What possible use could it have held for the ancient people? Similar jars found in the early 1930s in nearby Seleucia were said to be containers for sacred scrolls. Koenig, however, took another approach. Through reverse engineering, he theorized that the mysterious piece of pottery might have been a battery and wrote up his findings after returning to Germany in 1939.

The answer to the question as to the use of the curious find caught me by surprise when I brought all of the parts into relationship with each other and considered their careful separation from each other by insulating asphalt: It must be an electric battery! One need only to put in an acid or alkaline liquid and the battery would be finished. I expressed my view with caution, as it could only be confirmed by further circumstances of discovery and discoveries…

Koenig addressed the most obvious question—the purpose of the battery—with an electroplating theory. Other artifacts discovered in the region seemed to be electroplated. These included bronze and copper vessels covered with a flaky patina. And, too, local craftsmen of the Parthian era used a somewhat unique method of applying a metallic veneer in a rudimentary form of electroplating, which may have evolved from a more ancient form. Electricity generated from the jar might also have been used in religious ceremonies. It may have also had a medicinal purpose, since the ancient Greeks had used the electric charge from torpedo fish as a local anesthesia.


© Chris Costello

Over time more of the mysterious jars, some with a slightly different design, were found, about a dozen in all, which Koenig theorized might have been linked together to generate a more powerful current. Not surprisingly, Koenig’s battery theory was widely rejected by the archaeological establishment. There were also problems with the theory from a technological standpoint. The top of the container was sealed with bitumen, an asphaltlike substance, a design flaw that left whoever used the battery unable to replace the acidic or alkaline electrolyte. Would an ancient people have designed a disposable battery?

Other evidence mounted against the battery theory. Although the Parthians maintained a substantial empire for a time, they did not appear to have been particularly sophisticated technologically. Additionally, there was no mention of batteries or mysterious containers ever found in any of the cultural or cross-cultural evidence of the Parthians. The electroplating theory was eventually called into question when archaeologists discovered that the flaking patina was the work of a firing process involving mercury, called granulation.

The Baghdad battery might have fallen into the footnotes of scientific and archaeological history had it not been for the American Willard F. M. Gray, an engineer with the General Electric High Voltage Laboratory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1940, Gray used drawings of the artifacts to build his own ancient battery, which generated about half a volt. More replicas followed, all producing some current. The ancient vessels just might have been batteries.

For even the most coldly skeptical, the combination of ancient ingenuity and modern mystery is intellectually enticing, except for all those nagging technical details. For instance, to perform any work, such as electroplating, several of these low voltage batteries would have to be linked in series—positive to positive/negative to negative—to boost the voltage. Yet no such linking apparatus was found. However, perhaps what is most worrisome about the Baghdad battery theory is that it lacks any form of known underlying science in the Parthian culture.

The Baghdad batteries stand alone as a sophisticated artifact in an otherwise perfectly consistent ancient culture. If the Parthians had created a battery, time has obscured its purpose as well as every trace of its scientific origins. Part of the problem, of course, is the very simplicity of battery technology itself—two dissimilar metals in an acidic or alkaline solution. A copper penny and a galvanized nail pushed through the skin of a lemon creates an electrical charge. The Parthians might well have stumbled on the secret of generating electricity by accident.

The mystery of the Baghdad batteries has endured for more than seventy years. A broken piece of yellowish pottery about the size of a man’s fist continues to surface as proof of the wisdom of the ancients and to support the myths of pop culture junk science. UFO enthusiasts have even claimed it as evidence of interplanetary visitors, while others have cited it as evidence of interdimensional travelers.