The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution - Henry Schlesinger (2010)
Chapter 4. Science, Showmanship, and the Voltaic Pile
“More than the diamond Koh-i-noor, which glitters among their crown jewels, they prize the dull pebble which is wiser than a man, whose poles turn themselves to the poles of the world, and whose axis is parallel to the axis of the world. Now, their toys are steam and galvanism.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, English Traits
From the perspective of our technologically jaded age in which scientific and technical breakthroughs often rate little more than a perfunctory nod of acknowledgment, it is difficult to imagine the excitement science provoked among the general public during the early part of the nineteenth century. Scientific discoveries promised something far different from the engineering marvels of the Industrial Revolution that focused on such practical matters as increased production in automated mills or the speed and tonnage of locomotives.
Science was an exploration of the world beyond the borders of bare-knuckle nineteenth-century commerce and the routine concerns of everyday life. The promise proffered by nineteenth-century science was a greater and more intimate understanding of the world, specifically nature. It was not all that different from the adventurous scientific expeditions that fetched back specimens of insects, plants, animals, and artifacts from distant lands for examination and classification. And no science was more glamorous than chemistry.
Today schoolchildren learn that water is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, yet for those at the start of the nineteenth century the discovery that the covering of three-quarters of the globe, upon which the great ships sailed to distant lands—and that the fluid essential to sustain all life—was composed of two invisible gases was a counterintuitive revelation.
The new study of galvanism was decidedly different from most branches of science. Though its precise nature was not yet fully understood, its potential was suddenly open to vivid, often far-ranging speculation and all manner of experimentation, thanks in large part to the voltaic pile and the Leyden jar. Periodicals and books intended for the nonscientist flourished, finding an eager readership among the middle class, which was already enthralled by the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution and the radical new philosophies sweeping through Europe and America. Crowds packed auditoriums to hear the latest theories on galvanism while newspapers reporting on the lectures ran stories with appropriate breathless awe. Memoirs written by those in London during the nineteenth century are packed with remembrances of lectures at the Royal Institution and news of the latest scientific breakthroughs.
Science was not only new and glamorous, but also held the potential to reveal secrets previously unknown to man—making it nearly blasphemous. As for the scientists, they made it a point to be as compelling as possible. The idea was to instruct through entertainment. Among the more spectacular of these science shows was that of Giovanni Aldini, the physicist nephew of Luigi Galvani. An early and ardent supporter of his uncle’s theory of animal electricity, he surpassed experiments featuring twitching frogs, taking the same general principles to stunningly morbid levels. During one demonstration in the early 1800s Aldini applied current from a power fully charged Leyden jar to the head of a freshly slaughtered ox, causing audiences to gasp as the eyes, nose, and tongue convulsed and spasmed.
Moving on to humans, he acquired from local authorities subjects fresh from execution for experimentation and demonstrations. “A large incision was made into the nape of the neck, close below the occiput,” Aldini wrote of one early experiment on a recently deceased thirty-year-old man.
The posterior half of the Atlas vertebra was then removed by forceps, when the spinal marrow was brought into view. A profuse flow of liquid blood gushed from the wound, inundating the floor. A considerable incision at the same time was made in the left hip through the great gutteal muscle so as to bring the sciatic nerve into sight, and a small cut was made in the heel; the pointed rod with one end connected to the battery was now placed in contact with the spinal marrow, while the other rod was placed in contact with the sciatic nerve. Every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements resembling violent shuddering from the cold…On moving the second rod from the hip to the heel, the knee being previously bent, the leg was thrown out with such violence as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who attempted to prevent its extension.
In other experiments and demonstrations, Aldini reportedly used just the heads of executed prisoners. Moistening both ears with a brine solution, he completed a circuit with two wires—very much resembling twenty-first-century MP3 player headphones—attached to a crude battery comprised of a hundred layers of silver and zinc. “When this communication was established, I observed strong contractions in the muscles of the face, which were contorted in so irregular a manner that they exhibited the appearance of the most horrid grimaces,” he wrote. “The action of the eye-lids was exceedingly striking, though less sensible in the human head than in that of an ox.”
Traveling from Bologna to Paris, and then on to London, Aldini took his gruesome show on the road, staging scientific demonstrations featuring human cadavers and animals with theatrical flourish at universities and medical schools. Though usually not open to the general public, these demonstrations were excitedly reported in the popular press causing a sensation across Europe. In London, George Forster, found guilty of murdering his wife and child and duly executed, was rolled out onstage and into medical history at the Royal College of Surgeons fresh from the gallows at Newgate Prison. As Aldini began prodding the body with two rods attached to a charged Leyden jar, Forster’s legs, mouth, and rectum clenched and contorted.
Aldini’s efforts earned him the Royal Society’s Copley Medal; to his credit, he never actually claimed to reanimate the dead, restricting his comments to more scientific phrases such as “command the vital powers” and “exerted a considerable power over the nervous and muscular systems.” The Times of London also took a conservative view after witnessing his experiment in 1803.
Its object was to shew [sic] the excitability of the human frame, when this animal electricity is duly applied. In cases of drowning or suffocation, it promises to be of the utmost use, by reviving the action of the lungs, and thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality. In cases of apoplexy, or disorders of the head, it offers also most encouraging prospects for the benefit of mankind. The Professor, we understand, has made use of galvanism also in several cases of insanity, and with complete success. It is the opinion of the first medical men, that this discovery, if rightly managed and duly prosecuted, cannot fail to be of unforeseen utility.
Yet the conclusions drawn by those outside the medical and scientific communities were often not as nuanced. If movement was tantamount to life, then life had been somewhat restored through electric shocks. Could it be possible that death was no longer permanent? Given the already uneasy relationship with the mystery of death prevalent during the nineteenth century, it seemed wholly possible that electricity might one day provide a viable alternative to the inevitability of the graveyard.
The Royal Humane Society, which had set up receiving stations and launched boats to assist drowning victims, added electric shock to its tools along with bellows and an early version of CPR. When Percy Bysshe Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook, committed suicide by throwing herself into London’s Serpentine, her body was reported to have been subjected to electric shocks from a voltaic pile in an attempt to revive her.
Hucksters of electrotherapy cures, plentiful in Europe and America, began plying their dubious trade with abandon, promising everything from a cure for impotence to arthritis. Even those with no scientific training or access to equipment recognized the public’s gullibility when it came to electricity. One enterprising entrepreneur in London offered the services of a bathtub filled with torpedo fish for two shillings and sixpence.
As far back as 1759 John Wesley, the abolitionist and founder of the Methodist Church, wrote a book called The Desideratum, praising the ability of electricity to cure or alleviate diseases. An instant success, the book sold through five editions by 1781. Embracing electricity, which he called the “subtle fluid,” as a miracle cure, Wesley shipped four electrostatic machines to London to treat angina pectoris, bruising, cold feet, gout, gravel in the kidneys, headaches, hysterics and memory loss, pain in the toe, sciatica, pleuritic pain, stomach pain, palpitations, and other common ailments. He concludes The Desideratum: “Let him for two or three Weeks (at least) try it himself in the above-named Disorders. And then his own Senses will shew him, whether it is a mere Plaything, or the noblest Medicine yet known in the World.”
To many of its practitioners and observers, science was nearly a religious calling reserved for a fortunate and chosen few, and in early nineteenth-century London none was more select or lucky than the chemist Humphry Davy. Young, brilliant, and socially ambitious, as a protégé of the well-known physicist Joseph Priestley, he had invented a lamp that reduced the danger of explosions in coal mines. This was no trivial matter, since the Industrial Revolution was largely coal powered and explosions were a constant danger that claimed lives and slowed down production. Davy had also discovered the more pleasurable effects of nitrous oxide, which added to his scientific reputation as well as winning the friendship of literary luminaries such as Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Davy came from a family split between gentry and laborers. His father, a failed farmer, died when Davy was still in his teens, and he was handed off to a rich uncle, then handed off again, this time to a local surgeon and apothecary as an apprentice. Through a combination of good fortune and ingenuity, he ended up in exactly the right place at the right time.
Abandoning his provincial roots in Cornwall for London in the summer of 1800 with his reputation already secure, Davy was more than ready to begin a new chapter in science. Experimenting with Volta’s device at the newly formed Royal Institution, he was appointed as chemist and assistant lecturer in 1801. In 1802, he was promoted to the position of professor, making him one of the first full-time, salaried, natural philosophers.
When first conceived, the Royal Institution of Great Britain was to be a showplace to exhibit and demonstrate commercial processes, in effect an open forum for showcasing the technological progress of the Industrial Revolution. This was not an altogether unreasonable proposition. Science had been contributing to industrial ventures in subtle and not so subtle ways since the 1700s. To cite a few examples, the simple acts of accurately measuring weight and temperatures proved a large benefit to a large number of businesses. However, with patent laws still not firmly established or even enforced, the idea of an open forum posed a problem. Manufacturing concerns, though benefiting from the technological advances of the day, still jealously guarded their processes as trade secrets; and almost immediately the Royal Institution drifted toward pure science with the managers allocating enough money to build one of the best-equipped labs in Europe.
Davy’s lectures at the Royal Institution made him famous and his good looks made him something of a pop culture icon. “Those eyes were made for something besides poring over crucibles,” women were reported to have said about him. As much as a serious scientist can be, he also seemed born for the stage. Neither a disheveled eccentric who labored alone and then stammered out his ideas nor a dusty, doddering, and droning professor, he offered audiences that most rare of all scientific presentations—passionate eloquence paired with impeccable showmanship.
Well mannered and dressed as fashionably as the audiences who flocked to see his demonstrations, he was a far cry from the secretive and unkempt Newton. Every inch a gentleman practicing what was still very much a gentleman’s avocation, Davy took measures to ensure that only those worthy of his treasured ideas sat in attendance. He began charging admission to his lectures, then sealed a side door and tore down the balcony, both constructed expressly for the less fortunate classes.
Taking the stage before a packed audience, he used a voltaic pile to create sparks and set off small charges of gunpowder. Arcing current through two charcoal electrodes to produce a brilliant white glow was a favorite among audiences, even if they didn’t understand that they were seeing the first electric light. The press covered his demonstrations in fawning detail while the scientific principles he explained, often in poetic terms (he was not above using the word “sublime”), became the focus of drawing room conversation.
So popular were the demonstrations that scalpers took to selling tickets at a hefty profit. On lecture nights at the Royal Institution, Albemarle Street suffered a nineteenth-century version of horse-and-carriage gridlock, prompting authorities to make it the first one-way street in London in an attempt to clear the congestion.
Davy was not only a talented showman of science, but also a brilliant experimentalist. Drawn to Volta’s device, he quickly began experimenting with an improved design that incorporated alkaline and acid substances with a single metal plate. Napoleon, who had been so impressed with Volta’s work that he established a prize through the French Institute, bestowed on Davy the medal along with a 300-franc prize—despite the fact that England and France were at war.
Using the Royal Institution’s battery, Davy began decomposing compounds down into their constituent parts by way of electrolysis, which meant applying an electrical charge to the compounds. This eventually led to the discovery of five new elements and the isolation of other elements, such as lithium. This was groundbreaking, exciting stuff for the era. When an experiment in electrolysis on caustic potash and soda, which had resisted analysis, proved successful, Davy was more than a little overjoyed. His assistant later wrote, “When he saw the minute globules of potassium burst through the crust of potash and take fire…he could not contain his joy—he actually danced about the room in ecstatic delight: some little time was required for him to compose himself to continue the experiment.”
It was these kinds of experiments that not only established Davy, but also seriously challenged the designation of chemistry as a “French science” that had stood since Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier first drew the distinction between elements and compounds and then began the ordering of known elements in the 1780s. Ironically, Benjamin Thompson, the American-born British Loyalist who founded the Royal Institution, would later marry Lavoisier’s widow after the chemist was pulled from his laboratory in the Louvre and beheaded during the French Revolution. “The Republic has no need of scientists,” the judge was reputed to have said.
Davy’s experiments also established that electricity and chemical affinity are identical. Although not the first to hit on this notion—again, the credit goes to Lavoisier—Davy was the first to prove it. In 1806 he demonstrated that decomposed water offers only two products—oxygen and hydrogen—in the same proportions as when water is synthesized. The conclusion was simple: electrical attraction holds elements together in compounds. This was a major step forward in understanding the nature of electricity as a vital force. Davy also expanded and refined Volta’s view that electricity was generated by simple contact between differing metals. For Davy, the dedicated chemist, there had to be a chemical reaction at work.
THE ROYAL INSTITUTION—LIKE MANY organizations and individuals—began building larger and larger batteries. In July of 1808, only eight weeks after a hefty 600-plate battery was finished, Davy requested an even bigger voltaic pile, stating in his proposal that the “increase in size of the apparatus is absolutely necessary.”
As passionate and tireless a fund-raiser as he was a lecturer and experimentalist, Davy played on his benefactors’ pride in England’s empire, comparing science to the great voyagers of exploration and a “country unexplored, but noble and fertile in aspect, a land of promise in philosophy…so rich a philosophy, and the useful arts connected with them.”
In the age of Napoleonic conquest, he was also not above leveraging nationalistic fervor to raise the funds needed, rejecting all subtlety in calling the battery a critical piece of weaponry in the electrochemical and scientific war with France while reporting that Napoleon himself had ordered the construction of numerous large batteries at the École Polytechnique. “The scientific glory of a country may be considered in some measure, as an indication of its innate strength,” he wrote. “There is one spirit of enterprise, vigour, and conquest in science, arts and arms…the same dignified feeling, which urges men to endeavor to gain dominion over nature will preserve them from humiliation and slavery.”
It is worth noting that scientific ideas seemed to be flowing with relative freedom across borders, even between nations engaged in hostilities. Carried by smugglers and business concerns, periodicals and letters detailing the latest scientific discoveries moved freely during the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 to 1815, in some cases traveling more rapidly between England and France than from Switzerland.
Davy’s request for a larger battery was approved and in December of 1809 he was presented with a battery of some 2,000 six-inch-square double plates. At the time it was the world’s largest battery, built by donations to a subscription fund at the Royal Institution.
One of a new breed of natural philosophers, Davy recognized the impact that science could have on industry and society. In addition to redesigning the miner’s lamp, he had studied the chemical processes of tanneries and agriculture, published the Elements of Agricultural Chemistry in 1813, and even tried to solve the problem of shipworms, a major cause of concern in the shipping industry, by attaching positively charged iron and zinc to the copper hulls of boats.
Also, like many others of his era, Davy saw no impenetrable line of demarcation between science and the arts. Rather, he and others of his time saw them as components of a whole.
Man, in what is called a state of nature, is a creature of almost pure sensation. Called into activity only by positive wants, his life is passed either in satisfying the cravings of the common appetites, or in apathy, or in slumber. Living only in moments he calculates but little on futurity. He has no vivid feelings of hope, or thoughts of permanent and powerful action. And unable to discover causes, he is either harassed by superstitious dreams, or quietly and passively submissive to the mercy of nature and the elements. How different is man informed through the beneficence of the Deity, by science and the arts!
Gentlemen of the “better classes” were still expected to possess a working knowledge of science, along with art, history, and literature. It was an era in which ideas really mattered, and understanding the mysteries of nature through scientific exploration was a very big idea. Conversely, many artists, writers, and poets who had traditionally focused their attention and creative powers on myths turned their talents to depictions of science while those laboring away in the lab dabbled in the arts. Davy wrote poetry. In one poem, he pays tribute to nature, which was slowly yielding its secrets through scientific exploration.
Oh, most magnificent and noble Nature!
Have I not worshipped thee with such a love
As never mortal man before displayed?
Adored thee in thy majesty of visible creation,
And searched into thy hidden and mysterious ways
As Poet, as Philosopher, as Sage?
A friend of William Wordsworth, Davy persuaded the poet that natural philosophers were akin to poets in their search for meaning, and later edited Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, while Coleridge attended scientific lectures in search of metaphors. And in America, Ralph Waldo Emerson, starting his first journal after leaving Harvard in 1820, listed Davy’s Elements of Chemical Philosophy as a book he intended to read.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, perhaps the most romantic of the Romantic poets, was himself an enthusiastic amateur natural philosopher for much of his short life. As a young boy he enlisted his sister, Helen, and her playmates in experiments with a charged Leyden jar. Later she would write, “[My heart] would sink with fear at his approach; but shame kept me silent, as with many others as we could collect, we were placed hand-in-hand around the nursery table to be electrified.” His love of science continued through his days at Eton and then Oxford, where his rooms were crowded with microscopes and pumps.
Later, his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who would write Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, took an equally ardent interest in science. Though often portrayed as an innocent because of her youth when she married the poet, Mary Shelley was, in fact, far from naïve. (She began writing Frankenstein when she was eighteen, and it was published when she was twenty-one.) She would have more than held her own with her husband, along with Lord Byron, as well as the somewhat sinister doctor John Polidori during that rainy 1816 vacation at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva where the idea of Frankenstein took hold during a parlor game of ghost stories.
Given her upbringing, Mary Shelley would have been quite at home with such company. Her father, William Godwin, a former minister turned ardent atheist, advocated a particularly idealistic philosophy inspired by the “scientific principles” of the French Revolution. Based on reason, justice, and universal education, it called for the peaceful overthrow of all religious, political, and social institutions. Coleridge, along with the writer Mary Lamb and the former American vice president Aaron Burr were frequent visitors to her father’s house, as were Humphry Davy and William Nicholson.
If Mary Shelley had not actually witnessed Aldini’s gruesome public exhibitions, she was certainly aware of them and was familiar with the scientific principles of Davy’s work. Although she is coy about the exact process used to animate the monster, as she noted in her diary during the writing of Frankenstein, she was reading Davy’s Elements of Chemical Philosophy.
“Before this I was not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of electricity. On this occasion a man of great research in natural philosophy was with us, and excited by this catastrophe, he entered on the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to me,” she has her protagonist write.
In a subsequent 1831 edition of her book, she wrote in the introduction, “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth.”
Edgar Allan Poe was less coy about the methodology for bringing the deceased back to life by way of an electrical charge. In his story “Some Words with a Mummy” he becomes nearly clinical on the methods used to bring a mummy back to life.
Hereupon it was agreed to postpone the internal examination until the next evening; and we were about to separate for the present, when some one suggested an experiment or two with the voltaic pile. The application of electricity to a mummy three or four thousand years old at the least, was an idea, if not very sage, still sufficiently original, and we all caught it at once. About one-tenth in earnest and nine-tenths in jest, we arranged a battery in the Doctor’s study, and conveyed thither the Egyptian…It was only after much trouble that we succeeded in laying bare some portions of the temporal muscle which appeared of less stony rigidity than other parts of the frame, but which, as we had anticipated, of course, gave no indication of galvanic susceptibility when brought in contact with the wire.
Likewise, Lord Byron, who reached a nineteenth-century version of rock star fame at the height of his career—“Mad, bad and dangerous to know” according to Lady Caroline Lamb—was also keenly aware of scientific advances, though he seemed to view them with more than mild suspicion. In his masterpiece Don Juan, he wrote,
Bread has been made (indifferent) from potatoes;
And galvanism has set some corpses grinning,
But has not answer’d like the apparatus
Of the Humane Society’s beginning
By which men are unsuffocated gratis:
What wondrous new machines have late been spinning!
I said the small-pox has gone out of late;
Perhaps it may be follow’d by the great
And then, a few stanzas later,
This is the patent-age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions;
Sir Humphry Davy’s lantern, by which coals
Are safely mined for in the mode he mentions,
Tombuctoo travels, voyages to the Poles,
Are ways to benefit mankind, as true,
Perhaps, as shooting them at Waterloo.
And, for Herman Melville, electricity—mysterious and powerful as it seemed at the time—served as a perfect metaphor for Captain Ahab’s primal obsession and madness, which he transmits through the crew as if through an electrical circuit in Moby-Dick.
“Advance, ye mates! Cross your lances full before me. Well done! Let me touch the axis.” So saying, with extended arm, he grasped the three level, radiating lances at their crossed centre; while so doing, suddenly and nervously twitched them; meanwhile, glancing intently from Starbuck to Stubb; from Stubb to Flask. It seemed as though, by some nameless, interior volition, he would fain have shocked into them the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life. The three mates quailed before his strong, sustained, and mystic aspect. Stubb and Flask looked sideways from him; the honest eye of Starbuck fell downright.
“In vain!” cried Ahab; “but, maybe, ’tis well. For did ye three but once take the full-forced shock, then mine own electric thing that had perhaps expired from out me. Perchance, too, it would have dropped ye dead…”
Electricity was still a phenomenon to be studied without much thought as to its eventual value in the marketplace. Researchers advanced differing views and theories. Was it a chemical or mechanical force? Mysterious and invisible, electricity still seemed to have little apparent use. Volta had ignited gunpowder and then severed a thin length of wire with a charge from his voltaic pile during a demonstration for Napoleon, but these were mainly parlor tricks that only hinted at some future use.
In Italy, Luigi Brugnatelli, a professor of chemistry at Pavia and a friend of Volta’s, managed to develop a form of electrodeposition (electroplating) just a few years after the development of the voltaic pile. The metallic object to be coated—say a trophy—was put into a solution filled with dissolved salt of the metal to coat it. The trophy was then negatively charged by way of a battery while the positively charged pole made up of the plating material—for example, nickel or silver—gave up electrons. Since opposites attract, the positively charged silver or nickel coated the object.
Brugnatelli’s idea was ingenious. Unfortunately, his findings were repressed because of a dispute with the French Academy of Sciences. It would fall to British and Russian scientists to come up with the principles independently years later.
THE BATTERY, SO SIMPLE IN design, quickly developed into a field of research in itself as natural philosophers sought more power and longer-lasting batteries. The key, the researchers knew, was in combining different types of metals and solutions. In 1802, Volta discovered that manganese dioxide and zinc in a saline solution generated a higher voltage than just copper and zinc. Within a remarkably short period of time, improved battery designs began emerging from labs across Europe.
At around the same time, William Cruickshank, a Scottish chemist and military surgeon, read Volta’s letter and set about improving the original design. Building a grooved wooden box, he soldered copper and zinc plates horizontally, and then flooded the box with an acidic solution. Although imperfect—the box tended to leak at the seams—it did provide stronger current than Volta’s original design and proved to be the first battery capable of something like mass production by instrument makers.
William Hyde Wollaston was a physician who had given up his practice in favor of pure science in the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology. He discovered platinum and palladium early on, and his work in crystalline structures yielded not only scientific breakthroughs, but also instruments for measuring crystals. Turning his attention to lenses led him to create the camera lucida (Latin for light), a tool that allowed artists to draw in more accurate proportion.
The battery he developed in mid-1815 or 1816, known as the Wollaston pile, featured copper plates bent in two with the zinc placed between the two halves like a sandwich, though the metals were kept from touching by way of a wooden dowel. Like Cruickshank’s battery, the whole arrangement was mounted in a wooden trough and submerged in an acidic solution.
In 1836, John F. Daniell, a professor at King’s College London, came up with a cell that produced a steadier, longer-lasting current than Volta or Cruickshank’s devices. Until then, battery chemistry had posed an inherent and mysterious problem. Hydrogen released from the chemical reaction would accumulate on the “passive” copper plate. These bubbles would eventually build up and block the current. Solving the problem was easy but usually meant removing the plate (or plates) and wiping it down on a regular basis.
Daniell’s solution was an entirely new battery design that consisted of a cylindrical copper vessel with a porous earthenware container inside that held a length of zinc rod. He then filled the space between the copper and the porous vessel with a solution of copper sulfate saturated by salt crystals placed on a perforated shelf. The porous cup was filled with dilute sulfuric acid. It was a brilliant, though somewhat overly complex design. The earthenware kept the fluids separated and the current flowing. Called the “constant battery,” the device had to be taken apart when not in use in order to halt the chemical reaction.
© Chris Costello
SIR WILLIAM ROBERT GROVE, A lawyer and judge with an interest in science, also tried his hand at battery design in the 1830s. His first cell was a zinc and platinum combination with the zinc in sulfuric acid and the platinum in nitric acid, divided by a Daniell-like porous container. Although creating a powerful charge of about 1.8 volts, the chemical reaction tended to release poisonous nitric dioxide gas. Still, the battery would eventually become a favorite among telegraph companies.
Later, in 1839, Grove would invent what is commonly known as the first “fuel cell.” It was already an established fact that water is split into its components of hydrogen and oxygen by an electrical current. Grove reversed the operation by combining oxygen and hydrogen to produce electricity and water. His design was brilliant. He fitted two platinum strips in a closed tube filled with hydrogen and oxygen in sulfuric acid. It worked, though not well enough for commercial production.
Daniell as well as Grove saw only limited use for their new and very much improved batteries. However, that was about to change in a dramatic way.