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

Chapter 8. Power and Light

“The Electric Girl Lighting Company will furnish a beautiful girl of fifty or one hundred candle power, who will be on duty from dusk till midnight—or as much later as may be desired…”

—New York Times

In the nineteenth century, as today, the world was in need of a better battery and there was no shortage of inventors willing to try their hand. Edison began experimenting with batteries during his free time very early on. Although his attempts to invent a battery that wasn’t subject to the dreaded polarization or the diffusion that seemed to accompany most antipolarizing techniques of the day have been largely forgotten, he put in a significant amount of time and effort on the search. After hitting on a partial solution early in his career as a telegrapher, he quickly dashed off a letter to Latimer Clark regarding his experiments. And, according to one often-repeated account, while in Louisville, Kentucky, he lost his job at the local telegraph office when sulfuric acid for an experimental battery he was working on spilled and leaked through the floor and into the manager’s office below.

The catalogs of telegraphic and lab equipment companies as well as popular books on electricity are stuffed with descriptions of batteries with exotic-sounding names: Smee’s battery—named after its British chemist inventor, Alfred Smee, who sought to reduce polarization by roughing up the sides of the plate, Walker’s platinized carbon battery—popular among telegraph offices in England—Tyer’s, Baron Ebner’s, and Maynooth’s battery, invented by Rev. Nicholas Callan.

The idea of a battery with an actual name—beyond familiar corporate brand names—strikes us as beyond quaint. We live in an age when batteries are largely viewed by the nontechnical general public not even in terms of specifications, such as voltage, but rather in size through convenient designations, such as AA or AAA. And too, batteries are increasingly unseen as more and more devices rely on the more convenient recharging rather than replacement.

Unlike today’s batteries, nineteenth-century batteries were considered a prominent component of whatever device they powered. James Clerk Maxwell, for example, in writing his Valentine by a Telegraph Clerk, not only wryly compares the smitten clerk’s love to a variety of specific batteries, but also to their most prominent technical attributes. They were considered as salient a part of the technology as the network’s wires or key.

IN 1866 THE FRENCH ENGINEER Georges Leclanché made the next technological leap forward in battery design. Leclanché’s contribution was little more than a glass jar filled with ammonium chloride (often called sal ammoniac), a positive electrode of manganese dioxide, and a negative of zinc with a small bar of carbon thrown in. It was, in almost every respect, the perfect battery for simple applications such as doorbells. It could be manufactured inexpensively and en masse, and its chemistry could be charged cheaply and easily. Millions were manufactured, and tens of thousands of them found uses in telegraph equipment and later in telephones before central exchanges provided power. Leclanché’s “wet cell,” as it was popularly referred to, pumped out 1.5 volts and is generally seen as the forerunner to the world’s first widely used battery, the zinc carbon cell or dry cell.

The wet cell was the first battery not to use a diluted acid solution. When the battery seemed to discharge completely, users simply dumped out the old electrolyte and replaced it with fresh sal ammoniac as a corrosive. Though its history includes use in alchemy, where it was portrayed as one of the four “spirits,” it was also a common household chemical used in baking, cleaning, and even the production of licorice. Easily available and relatively safe, sal ammoniac was more corrosive than Volta’s brine solution, but less corrosive than acid, though still strong enough to pull electrons off metal and create a charge. Another battery, called the gravity battery or crow’s foot because its electrodes hung down into the solution, was also popular.


© Chris Costello

The Leclanché battery did have one fairly large drawback. It was only good for intermittent use. It ran down relatively quickly but regained much of its full charge nearly as fast when allowed to sit for a while. This meant the Leclanché was virtually useless for things like electric lighting or stock tickers, any application that required a sustained flow of current. At a time when there were few electrical devices to power, this was not a particularly significant shortcoming. However, as the number of devices grew, a constant, reliable power source would be needed.

IN THE LONG HISTORY OF battery inventors, perhaps no individual showed more dogged determination than the French engineer Gaston Planté, inventor of the first practical rechargeable battery or storage battery. Planté, who died at age fifty-five in 1889, spent an astounding thirty years developing the lead acid battery that became known as the Planté cell. He was not the first to try his luck at storage batteries; others had been experimenting and even meeting with small successes, but nothing was developed that could be used in industry or produced commercially. For instance, Karl Wilhelm Siemens (later Sir Charles William Siemens), the brother of Werner von Siemens, cofounder of today’s electronics giant Siemens AG, had worked on a rechargeable battery based on the Grove design with little success and eventually gave up the effort. Planté, on the other hand, was not one to quit; he spent three decades on the project.

WHEN PEOPLE THINK OF RECHARGEABLE batteries at all, they usually think they are putting electricity (whatever that is) back into the battery, very much like filling a drinking glass from a larger pitcher. In fact, when we recharge batteries, we are simply returning them to their original state. That’s the difference between primary cells or standard batteries and rechargeable or secondary batteries. In the primary batteries, the changes can’t be reversed because of the chemical composition and arrangement of the metals used, but in a rechargeable battery, they can be returned to their original chemical state by reversing the flow of current.

Very simply, when a battery discharges, it releases electrons from a metal and through the negative electrode to external circuitry that powers a device and then back into the positive electrode. During normal use, a battery’s negative pole becomes oxidized, sending off electrons, while its positive pole gives up oxygen. When a storage battery is recharged, the positive pole is oxidized and the negative pole reduced, shedding the positively charged ions it accumulated during use.

By the mid-nineteenth century scientists knew with reasonable certainty that batteries didn’t run out of electricity, but rather that something happened to the metals inside. The answer to extending a battery’s life had to involve finding a way to either slow down or reverse those chemical changes. At first they experimented with various substances, such as lead peroxide, to slow down the polarization process, but this usually led to other problems in the chemistry.

Like other battery scientists of the time, Planté experimented with all manner of metals, ranging from tin and silver to gold and platinum. Eventually he settled on lead. It was readily available, inexpensive, and possessed most of the qualities needed. But very quickly Planté discovered that lead also delivered a whole new set of problems. For one thing, its surface wasn’t porous enough to allow much of the acid in a battery to penetrate and release electrons. What he needed was a metal with a lot of surface area, something microscopically resembling a sponge. Lead more or less resembled silk. The answer to this problem was as simple as it was time consuming—let nature take its course. In the use of lead batteries, the surface area accumulates a layer of peroxide that is porous. So what Planté did, essentially, was polarize the plates with Grove batteries and allow them to self-discharge, then charge them again and allow for self-discharge, repeating the process over months to prematurely age the battery. It was, by all accounts, a hideously tedious process, which he named “formation.”

Planté was motivated, at least in part, by the commercial potential of a high voltage storage battery capable of reliably producing a constant current. Throughout his decades-long endeavor he maintained close ties with industry and businesses, such as Breguet, which was then selling batteries along with a range of telegraph equipment. In nearly every sense, he was closer to the modern (research & development) engineer than the scholarly scientist.

And why not? A mass-produced storage battery would be a hot commodity, and not just in telegraphy. In medicine, for example, it had been known for some time that certain metals such as platinum glowed when a sufficient amount of current was run through them. Heating platinum wire could produce a light to illuminate body cavities or a hot filament to use as a cauterizing tool.

Then there was Saturn’s tinder box, which Planté patented in the early 1870s. The user pressed a button on the side to send current through a platinum wire that glowed hot enough to light a cigarette or cigar while the battery inside the box also powered a doorbell. The gadget seems a simple thing, but Planté may have been far ahead of his time in combining these two unrelated functions in what was then seen as a technologically sophisticated device. The same basic principle applies—a single power source and multiple functions housed within one package—in today’s cell phones, which include features such as GPS, music, and Internet access.

Another possibility was to use the storage batteries to power lighthouses. Large batteries could replace the traditional oil lamps with more powerful limelights or carbon arcs. One idea was to use Grove cells to recharge primary batteries, which provided a higher constant voltage. In effect, they would work as a kind of induction coil that modified and regulated the current, acting as load levelers. While the Grove cells would ultimately prove too expensive, by the 1870s the Gramme generator—one of the first commercial dynamos available, named after the Belgian inventor Zénobe Gramme—eventually did the trick.

PLANTÉ ALSO HARBORED VAGUE PLANS for scaled-down versions of the lighthouse scheme for indoor lighting in homes. Although still not realistic in the 1870s, electric lighting was viewed as something of an eventuality. As far back as the 1840s, scientists in Europe were toying with the idea. In 1848, for example, when Thomas Edison was barely a year old, Joseph Swan, a chemist, was already experimenting with incandescent lighting in England. He had continued his experiments, which included carbonized paper in a vacuum, off and on for more than thirty years. The roadblocks he faced were due largely to the equipment available at the time. Vacuum pumps weren’t very efficient, and, too, he used thick, low-resistance carbon rods that required massive amounts of electricity to heat up, while Edison used high-resistance, very thin filaments of carbonized bamboo.

By the early 1870s Swan was already demonstrating a somewhat imperfect, but working, electric light. And, by 1879, he managed to light a street in Newcastle upon Tyne with arc lights. A detailed account of his work was published in the July issue of Scientific American, just a few months before Edison began experimenting with carbon. Whether Edison, who had a lifelong habit of appropriating and improving on the ideas of other inventors, read the article about Swan’s lighting scheme, remains a point of debate. However, enough elements of Swan’s bulb were included in Edison’s final model to trigger a patent dispute in Europe that ended with a partnership in England called Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company, Ltd., later simply Ediswan.

Other inventors and scientists were also hard at work in Europe and beyond. Some of them, such as the Britons Warren De la Rue and Frederick de Moleyns, used platinum filaments in their designs. However, electric lighting dated even earlier in specialized uses, such as the theater. In 1849, for example, the Paris opera was using arc lamps powered by batteries as a special effect in some performances. This was an expensive undertaking, but it packed the house. The use of special effects became so popular that in 1855 the Paris opera hired an electrical expert, L. J. Duboscq, who incorporated as much electrical light as possible into performances, including a laterna magica (magic lantern) for projecting images on a screen.

Then in 1872, the Russian Aleksandr Lodygin installed more than 200 electric lamps around the Admiralty Dockyards in St. Petersburg, but he apparently used far too much current and burned out the carbon filaments within hours. But Lodygin was nothing if not enthusiastic regarding electricity’s potential. He once planned an electric helicopter, which never came to pass, though, using a tungsten filament, he did perfect a lightbulb prior to Edison before going on to patent several other electrical devices, including electrical motors, electrical welding tools, and even an electric oven.

Another Russian, the engineer Pavel Nikolayevich Yablochkov (sometimes known as Paul Jablochkov), who worked in the telegraph industry, was also having some success with electric lighting. His “electric candle,” essentially a small version of the carbon arc in an ornate holder, caused a sensation when it was demonstrated at the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris. And then there were two Canadians, James Woodward and Mathew Evans, who came up with a working light in the 1870s.

BY THE TIME EDISON BEGAN his experiments in earnest in 1878, the field had already developed a large body of knowledge. Specifically, he had two pieces of the puzzle already solved: the Yablochkov system that lit multiple “electric candles” simultaneously in a single circuit, and a powerful generator called the telemachon that lit eight bulbs at once, also on a single circuit, which he had seen at another laboratory. This was no small problem for nineteenth-century engineers—how to light multiple bulbs on a single circuit, so that if one bulb blew out or was turned off, the others would continue to function.

In a newspaper interview with the New York Sun, Edison described his visit to the lab enthusiastically, “…I saw for the first time everything in practical operation. It was all before me. I saw the thing had not so far to go but that I had a chance. I saw that what had been done had never been made practically useful. The intense light had not been subdivided so that it could be brought into private houses.”

Throughout his most productive years, Edison’s product development style had more to do with incremental improvements of previous inventions than original ideas. He would regularly dispatch employees to study patents and journals and then write up summaries of what they found. Once he decided on potential solutions, he would divide the work between teams of craftsman and technicians. Edison viewed even the experimentation element of his process as a business, keeping detailed records of expenses associated with each project and experiment.

Edison, who had read Faraday’s Experimental Researches in Electricity, called the English scientist the “master experimenter.” He would, eventually, adopt Faraday’s position that even failed experiments were capable of yielding valuable data. Paradoxically, the very thing that held Faraday back in science—the absence of a strong mathematical foundation—would inspire and propel Edison forward in engineering.

This type of research more closely resembled modern product development than the cutting-edge work of Henry or Faraday. Although much has been written about Edison the inventor who doggedly pursued solutions through laborious trial-and-error experimentation, relatively little has been set into type about this decidedly less glamorous, though more businesslike and pragmatic approach. In many respects, Edison didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, just build a better wheel, and then sell it in quantity.

In the popular media, Edison fashioned for himself an image as the humble tinkerer, the hard worker whose gift of genius did not crush his folksy ways. He spoke plainly, not burdened by an oversized ego or entranced by arcane scientific mumbo-jumbo. Far from the otherworldly absentminded professor, he carried with him all the plainspoken credibility of the common man. The Wizard of Menlo Park would leave the obscure glories of science, theories, and publication in scholarly journals to the scientists. He was a simple man, simply making products ordinary people could use and enjoy.

What most of the public didn’t see was his unrelenting drive and business savvy. Edison had come of age in the nascent corporate worlds of the telegraph and the railroad. There could be no better place or time for an ambitious young man to learn the basic principles of technology and business. Western Union, in particular, promoted study and the acquisition of scientific knowledge among its employees, including telegraph operators. This was not a purely altruistic policy. With a scarcity of technical expertise, the company sought to grow its own cadre of technicians and engineers to promote up through the ranks. The company magazine, The Telegrapher, welcomed articles on technical innovation by employees with enough ambition to tinker with the technology in their spare time. And Edison was nothing if not ambitious to the point of obsession for most of his life. In a notebook entry dated in the early 1870s, he wrote of his first wife, “Mrs. Mary Edison my wife dearly beloved cannot invent worth a damn!”

Edison, who crafted his image as carefully as Morse, had an advantage over the inventor of the telegraph when it came to public relations. He knew newspapermen from his days as a young itinerant telegraph operator. Always skillful as a telegrapher, he rose to the top to become one of the chosen few entrusted to transmit news stories. His early experiences with reporters and as publisher of a pair of small newspapers provided invaluable insight into public relations. As reporters came to learn, Edison could be counted on for the colorful quotation and a minimum of scientific or technical jargon.

Like Morse, there was a good amount of truth mixed in with Edison’s self-created media persona. His story really does fit the mold of the nineteenth-century ideal of hard work and perseverance lifting the poor boy from obscurity and poverty to fortune and fame, though what is often left out is his utter ruthlessness when it came to the business of business. At one point he collected a hefty fee from Western Union to improve on Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in an attempt to break the young inventor’s patent. The effort would have succeeded if not for Bell’s father-in-law, who aggressively and successfully defended the patent. Edison was once called “the professor of duplicity,” but perhaps the most devastating description came from his friend William Orton, the president of Western Union, who was reported to have said, “…that young man has a vacuum where his conscience ought to be.”

Edison, of course, went on to create a viable electric light, patenting the bulb in the United States in 1879. Certain that electrical lighting would find its power from a central station, his eventual plan called for nothing less than the creation of an entire electrical infrastructure to supply power in much the same way gas was delivered. That meant generating stations along with power lines, metering systems, and work crews to maintain all of it.

Not unexpectedly, Edison had sound technological reasons for his stance. By the 1870s, large dynamos—as electrical generators were called—were coming into their own. Chief among these were the Zénobe Gramme dynamos, built for industrial uses, such as electroplating. Gramme, who started as a carpenter before entering the field of electricity, spent years perfecting his generator, which proved to be the first really efficient electric motor. During an 1873 exhibition in Paris, a workman accidentally wired one of the dynamos to another power source. The dynamo began spinning. It didn’t take long for the Belgian engineer to realize that in the process of improving his dynamo, he had created an electrical motor that was more efficient than Faraday’s philosophical toys—it could perform work.

Others in the field were not as certain as Edison when it came to the future of electric power. For one thing, would every consumer even want electrical power? Some imagined each home with its own minigenerating plant that ran on coal. For many, the storage battery was very much seen as the future of domestic electricity, at least in some quarters. Companies were formed in England and France with shares sold to finance production and sales.

According to this school of thought, the obvious luxury of electricity was destined to light only the homes of a fortunate few, powered by powerful storage batteries inside the home. One idea was to deliver the batteries as needed to power electric lights. This scheme, which never really got off the ground, was popularly known as the “milk bottle” plan, since the batteries would be delivered as milk was. People (or their servants) would leave their depleted batteries by the front door and new, recharged batteries would be delivered on a regular schedule.

A similar plan had two sets of storage batteries placed in the home. While one set was recharging from a central station, the other set would be in use providing a steady current. Dozens of patents were granted for electromechanical switches to run the system. Another idea that enjoyed brief—very brief—consideration was for houses to store a series of large iron tanks in the basement that were filled with an alkaline solution and proper metallic anodes and cathodes. When these enormous batteries were fully discharged, the zinc anodes oxidized and fully dissolved in the solution. Home owners would then drain the electrolyte into another iron tank and run carbon dioxide through it to produce white zinc they could sell at a profit. Not a new idea, telegraph offices had been doing it for years to offset costs, but it was still wholly impractical for consumers.

Given the times, none of these schemes was altogether outrageous. Most private homes depended on few, if any, public utilities. The majority of homes in the United States had their own wells or cisterns, coal heating systems, and outhouses. In urban areas there were gas companies that ran pipes into homes for lighting, but the infrastructure was not as well developed in the United States as in England.

Of course, Edison, who was planning his own large generating plants, was not a fan of battery lighting. He had investigated storage batteries early on as a way to store energy in power plants to provide an even flow of current that would extend bulb life, but found them wanting and eventually abandoned the concept. “The storage battery is, in my opinion, a catch penny, a sensation, a mechanism for swindling the public by stock companies,” he was quoted as saying in an 1883 London interview. “The storage battery is one of those peculiar things which appeal to the imagination, and no more perfect thing could be desired by stock swindlers than that very self same thing…Scientifically, storage is all right, but, commercially, as absolute a failure as one can imagine.”

EDISON WAS NOT THE FIRST to light a city, though he was the best marketer of city lighting. Two years before he revved up the dynamos for this first power plant on Pearl Street in Manhattan, another firm, the Brush Arc Lighting Company, installed more than twenty arc lights in the city to light a street at its own expense. It was a neat promotion, but no match for Edison. With backing from J. P. Morgan, Edison was soon in business, installing stand-alone generators to light high-profile locations, such as the New York Stock Exchange, Chicago’s Academy of Music, and even shop windows. Within a few years he installed more than 300 of these generators across the country.

This didn’t mean Edison was retreating from his original position on central power; rather, he was promoting lighting by the most efficient means available. In today’s marketing parlance, he positioned electricity as “upmarket” and exciting. In lower Manhattan, he supplied a fashionable theater called Niblo’s Garden with battery-powered bulbs that dancers wore as part of their costumes. To Edison and others working in the field, anything that put electrical lighting in the view of the general public was a good thing. The store windows and signs that Edison lit in large cities were not just selling the products of their sponsors, but the concept of electric lighting as well.

Just as the telegraph networks had been scaled down to doorbells and hotel annunciators, electric lighting, too, was scaled down. In Europe and the United States it was possible to rent electric lighting for special events. By the 1880s catered electricity came complete with strings of electric lightbulbs and lead storage batteries to power them. Party hosts negotiated with the company as to how many lights they wanted and how long they wanted them lit. Trained electricians, schooled in the mysterious arts of the technology, tended the lighting arrangements. Feasting and dancing under the battery-powered luminescence was viewed as the height of modernity and fashion. The power was supplied via large lead acid storage batteries provided by companies such as the New York Isolated Accumulator Company and the Electric Storage Battery Company (known as EPS), which made lighting the balls of the rich something of a specialty. No doubt today such gatherings would be candlelit.

The 1880s also saw the formation of the Electric Girl Light Company based in New York City. For a fee, party hosts could rent young ladies decorated with electric lights powered by small batteries. The company’s launch was described with a bit of wit in the New York Times. “The Electric Girl Lighting Company will furnish a beautiful girl of fifty or one hundred candle power, who will be on duty from dusk till midnight—or as much later as may be desired,” the story in the Times enthused.

This girl will remain seated in the hall until someone rings the front doorbell. She will then turn on her electric light, open the door, and admit the visitor and light him into the reception room. If, however, any householder should desire to keep the electric girl constantly burning and to employ another servant to answer the bell, there can be no doubt that the electric girl, posing in a picturesque attitude, will add much to the decoration of the house.

The Electric Girl Lighting Company was not the only one taking advantage of battery-powered lights. The innovative dancer Loie Fuller incorporated electric lights into her choreography, wiring her dancers with bulbs and batteries to perform on a darkened stage. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad mogul’s second wife and a grand dame of high society, was known to commission gowns and dresses with electric lights with which to stage tableaus—posed still lifes—to entertain dinner guests.

For those of more modest means there was still access to electricity or at least the promise of battery-powered electric miracles for everyday use. Labor-saving household products that included everything from the first electric iron and electric fan to the sewing machine and toaster were all patented and often publicized. Never mind that many of the products were years, even decades away from practical use, they showed what was possible with the power of electricity.

The battery also found some unusual uses. It was said that the African explorer and journalist Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame) carried a small battery during his 1870s African expedition that gave tribal leaders a shock when they shook hands in order to instill in them a sense of his superiority and power. When the trick received criticism, one defender wrote, “It is beyond understanding why fault should be found with this harmless and efficient method of teaching a truth.”

THE 1890S WORLD’S FAIRS BECAME high-voltage showcases for electricity. The brute force of steam-powered marvels of the Industrial Revolution that had crowded the exhibitions just a few years previous were quickly giving way to the electric miracles as the twentieth century approached. At the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago the fairgrounds were lit day and night by more than 90,000 incandescent bulbs powered by generators in a display of more electrical lighting than any city in the country. Newfangled devices such as moving sidewalks and more than fifty battery-powered boats in the man-made lagoons thrilled those who attended. The Electrical Building, filled with the newest devices that ran on battery and centrally provided current, was packed with fully functioning technological marvels. Could there be any doubt as to which way the world was moving? Yet electrical progress continued to advance uneasily.

At least part of the problem arose from the chaos surrounding electrical engineering itself. Even by the 1880s, when electrical devices were multiplying at a rapid rate, there were few standard solutions to similar engineering problems in different industries, such as telegraphy and electroplating, and little formalization of the kind that existed in other fields, such as civil or mechanical engineering.

Edison realized this even as his own electrical devices were coming to market. Meeting with Columbia University officials in the 1880s, he discussed the idea of an electrical engineering program. Edison was even willing to donate some equipment, including a dynamo he had used at a Paris exhibition a few years prior. The university officials seemed intrigued, even welcoming of the idea, but only if the renowned Edison was willing to establish the program with his own money. At that juncture the idea was dropped.

YEARS AFTER ELECTRICITY WAS ACCEPTED as safe, it was still seen as a luxury as well as a hallmark of progress. This is keenly apparent in the works of writers whose lives spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, continually comments, nearly compulsively, on the lavish lighting of Gatsby’s home. Gatsby stares at the green electric light that marks his love interest’s home across the water; later, after Gatsby’s death, Carraway reads an ancient self-help schedule Gatsby had written for himself as a child, “Study electricity, etc….” And in Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night, the family patriarch, James Tyrone, repeatedly lectures his sons about the cost of electricity, “I told you to turn out that light! We’re not giving a ball. There’s no reason to have the house ablaze with electricity at this time of night, burning up money!” In Dynamo, O’Neill sets his characters struggling between religious belief and technology, specifically electricity, actually naming one of his characters Light.

LIKE THE ELECTRIC LIGHT, THE telephone was one of those devices that seemed destined for invention. What is unique is the vast number of engineers working simultaneously toward the same end. Chief among these was Elisha Gray. Based in Chicago, Gray was already considered a serious inventor, holding patents for technical devices that enhanced telegraph systems, such as improved relays. At the time, this was no small accomplishment. Telegraphy was big business and even small enhancements were worth a fortune. Gray had already cofounded Graybar—named after himself and his partner, Enos Barton—and by the early 1870s, formed Western Electric.

For Gray, the telephone was another form of telegraph, one that would transmit sounds rather than simple clicks. In the early 1870s, he developed a telegraph that could actually transmit different sounds, each played by a separate telegraph key. By all accounts, it was a unique instrument, but of very little use in the telegraph business. It was shortly thereafter that Gray came up with the idea of a liquid microphone and primitive speaker.

Unfortunately for Gray, his lawyer submitted a patent caveat application on the same day—February 14, 1876—as Alexander Graham Bell’s lawyer submitted his patent for the telephone. Gray’s caveat, which is like a patent place holder, would have given Gray the credit. However, Bell’s patent was approved first, and what followed was a convoluted two-year court case with accusations of bureaucratic corruption that included everything from putting Bell’s paperwork quite literally on the top of the stack to allowing the young inventor to sneak a peek at Gray’s documents prior to filing.

Just whose patent papers arrived first remains in dispute, though Bell finally won the case along with his place in the history books. As for Gray, he continued inventing, eventually coming up with the “telautograph,” an ingenious device that employed small motors to send written messages along telegraph lines.

Even more intriguing than the Bell and Gray case was that of Antonio Meucci. An Italian inventor, engineer, and political activist, his wanderings eventually landed him in Staten Island. Caring for his invalid wife, he began experimenting with electrotherapies to cure her arthritis, then turned his attention to ways of communicating with her from different parts of the house. Long before either Bell or Gray had filed their patent applications, he developed a crude working telephone that some date back to the 1840s or 1850s. Living in poverty and desperately trying to find financial backers for his invention, he was unable to pay even the small fee for a caveat.

Like Gray, Meucci took Bell to court. The case dragged on for nine long years before quietly fading away.

Except for a few particulars, such as an influential father-in-law, Bell would have seemed the long shot in the race to develop the telephone. Although passionate about science from an early age and something of an amateur inventor—the Scottish-born Bell earned a living not in science or industry, but teaching deaf pupils in Boston. It was there that he met his wife, who studied under him as a deaf student.

Following the path set out by other inventors, Bell’s first design for the telephone resembled a musical instrument rather than the device we know today. The idea was to create something akin to a music box that could vaguely duplicate speech. Looking at the telephone as part of the telegraph’s natural technological evolution, it made perfect sense to continue along the path of a mechanical system that performed some form of electromagnetic work, such as activating a telegraph key.

According to legend, when his assistant and skilled machinist Thomas Watson plucked at one of the reeds attached to a spring they were testing, the sound that came over the wire was far more detailed than anticipated. What Bell heard was the interruption of the electromagnetic field along the wire disrupted by the plucked reed, then reproduced at his end. By chance, the line had been active with a constant flow of current because either Bell or Watson had turned a screw too tightly.

It took Bell months to refine the system, and he went so far as to file a patent prior to building a working model. Eventually, he got his “speaking telegraph to work,” but just barely. The first phone was an odd-looking thing, later nicknamed the “Gallows telephone” for its appearance. The way it worked was simple—someone spoke (or yelled) into a megaphone-shaped microphone, which caused a small membrane at the bottom to vibrate with sound waves. The membrane was attached to a thin rod in a metallic cup of acid with one battery-powered wire attached. Each time someone bellowed into the megaphone-like speaker, the resistance on the line changed with the vibrations of the voice as the rod moved up and down. An identical unit at the other end of the line reversed the process, essentially decoding the electrical impulses back into sound vibrations.

The Gallows telephone really had no practical application except that it showed proof of concept. However, compared to the simple opening and closing of a circuit to activate an electromagnet—which is how a telegraph functioned—Bell’s device was revolutionary. What he succeeded in doing was translating fairly complex sound waves into something mechanical and then electrical in a way in which they could be retranslated back into sound waves. It was, by all standards of the day, a very neat trick, but it wasn’t until the metallic cup and its acidic mixture were replaced by a magnet and a soft iron bar in the center that vibrated via a membrane to change resistance on the line that the telephone became a practical device.

In his patent as well as in correspondence, Bell referred to his invention as an “Improvement in Telegraphy.” What he had done, of course, was remove cutting-edge communications technology from the realm of the professional and put it in the hands of the consumer. There was no longer a need for a third party—the telegraph operator—for two individuals to communicate over long distances, a fact not lost on Western Union.

WITHIN TWO YEARS OF HIS patent filing, there were 10,000 Bell phones in the United States, a number that would grow to more than a quarter million by the early 1890s after Bell’s original patents expired. Perhaps even more impressive than the growth of the phone was the sheer amount of litigation it generated. Over the years Bell was forced to defend his patent against hundreds of lawsuits—600 by some counts—winning every one.

Telephones of all varieties began to come on the market. In some notable cases, households stored batteries, either a dry cell or a Leclanché cell, in the telephone box itself. Telephone employees would visit the homes of subscribers to service the batteries, topping off the electrolyte or changing it, as needed. It was an unwieldy system, to say the least, and with the introduction of line current provided from a central station, it finally ended.

Despite its explosive growth, there was still some puzzlement over the telephone’s place in society. Very early telephone promoters seemed to genuinely believe their revolutionary device had a future almost exclusively in business communications. For them the telephone was a serious piece of technology obviously intended for serious purposes. Users were actually discouraged from tying up the limited, though expanding, resources of telephone technology with trivial chitchat. Women, in particular, were seen as the worst potential offenders of such technological abuses.

It was only in the first few years of the twentieth century that phone companies began aggressively courting consumers with promises of convenience. The phone, according to Bell executives during this time period, was a wholesome, family-friendly piece of technology, capable of making a homemaker a more efficient domestic manager. Myths around the phone also began to spring up. In one case, editors of a paper warned phone owners not to communicate with the sick for fear of contracting disease over the phone lines.

Once it became apparent that consumers actually wanted telephones, the companies wasted little time in marketing them through advertisements and stories planted in papers and magazines with the help of friendly editors as well as public demonstrations. And, too, the industry began to come up with new uses for the phone, offering what amounted to broadcasts of news, weather reports, and even concerts.

OF COURSE, THERE WERE SOME who didn’t need to be convinced of electricity’s potential, even if they didn’t fully grasp the concepts involved. And it was these folks who attracted the confidence men. Medical quackery continued unabated, seemingly paralleling every legitimate scientific and technological advance. With the availability of relatively inexpensive power sources and the public’s newly acquired blind faith in science, bad medicine took off in a big way. Why shouldn’t the mysterious power of electricity—which was able to send messages thousands of miles in the blink of an eye or transmit actual voices—cure the simple ailments of the body, such as poor eyesight, depression, sexual dysfunction, gout, and irregular bowels?

In 1871, a New York City doctor named Albert Steele announced that his experiments concluded beyond all reasonable doubt “…that man is but an electrical machine and that disease is simply a disturbance or diminution of electrical forces in the system.”

Needless to say, the good doctor never elaborated on just what those experiments might have been, though they were no doubt highly scientific and far beyond the understanding of those not specially schooled. Never mind the boring details. Anything, no matter how far-fetched, seemed plausible when it came to electricity and science.

For Walt Whitman, who wrote the rhapsodic poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” the mysterious force of electrical current was a poetic metaphor, though for men like Steele and his loyal followers, the body really was something very close to an electrical power grid. With these claims came an implied understanding of the body’s mysterious electrical circuitry. Anyone reading Steele’s material couldn’t help but assume that the good doctor possessed intimate knowledge of the body’s wiring schematic.

And Steele wasn’t alone; quackery dressed up as science found an eager population of believers as charlatans of all stripes quickly jumped on the technological bandwagon. For some of these frauds the human body was portrayed as a giant “galvanic cell,” an idea that weirdly harkened back to Galvani’s debunked theory of animal electricity, then reemerged awash in computer-generated special effects in science fiction form in the hit movie The Matrix. One popular nineteenth-century lecturer, a J. H. Bagg, related the story of a woman who was mysteriously electrically charged by the northern lights and was able to shoot sparks from her fingertips, at least for a little while. Apparently she was not only a battery, but a storage battery.

An entire industry sprang up catering to electromedicine. Medical supply houses began turning out battery-powered equipment for electrotherapies for doctors. With prices starting at $10.00 and progressing upward to $25.00 or more, they certainly looked like serious pieces of medical equipment, mounted in handsome polished wooden cases with shiny brass fittings and packed with complex wiring. They were also built for portability, for house calls. One of the best-known manufacturers, Jerome Kidder, combined batteries with small induction coils to boost the charge, while other versions included small hand-crank generators.

At a time before the FDA, it didn’t take long before the same type of electrotherapy spread to home use. These devices ranged from the laughable to the absolutely frightening. Some of the machines simply generated a slight charge as patients gripped two conductive handles to fill them with the miraculous electrical healing power. However, one product, marketed by Professor W. R. Wells, included everything an electrotherapy novice needed to get started in the privacy of their own home, including detailed instructions on how to mix the chemicals for the battery. And for those really serious about their electrotherapy treatments, the good Professor Wells offered an optional set of medical instruments and probes designed to apply medicinal current to the eye and throat, as well as the vagina and rectum, with pinpoint accuracy. Later, wily inventors, ever watchful for new markets, began selling vibrating probes to “restore vigor,” eventually giving rise to an entirely different battery-powered industry outside the medical profession.


© Chris Costello

The list of dubious electrical devices marketed is nearly endless. In England, one inventor came up with a cake of soap that was advertised as providing an electrical charge when bathing. Available details are sketchy, but it seems that the manufacturer claimed the soap released an acid that interacted with metallic electrodes—probably zinc and copper—that turned the bathtub into a battery. A few years later, as batteries began to shrink in size, a milliner produced a hat wired to a battery that produced a mild current intended to reduce headaches and prevent baldness. There were also electric corsets available to preserve the virtue of young ladies. Essentially a battery-powered chastity belt, when activated by an aggressive suitor, the corset let out a loud siren blast very much like our modern car alarms. As with all new technology, the inventors—even the worst of the charlatans—targeted concerns of a specific market. What is remarkable is just how little those concerns have changed in more than a century.

THE MARKET FOR THESE FRAUDS resided mostly in large cities. In many respects, those gullible city dwellers represented the flip side of the Luddites who violently protested mechanical weaving machines in the early 1800s. That is to say, the technological adherents embraced technology and science as blindly as the Luddites fought against it. The Luddites, of course, had something of a valid point. Automated textile mills really were an all too verifiable cause of unemployment and poverty in some regions of England. Conversely, the impassioned technophiles typically possessed little real understanding of electrical technology or its limits.

Even the most unlikely claims required only the slightest patina of science to attract followers among a growing middle class eager for a place in the vanguard of progress. Very often, all that was needed to capture the loyalty of paying customers was a serious-looking piece of equipment and a hoaxer masquerading reasonably well as a learned man of science.

Perhaps one of the most enduring of these devices was the “electric belt.” First introduced in the 1870s by the British inventor J. L. Pulvermacher, but later copied by dozens of manufacturers, the belts sold briskly well into the twentieth century, promising to increase vigor, improve circulation, and enhance excretion. Wholly ineffective, but technologically ingenious in their own way, the first generation of electric belts featured multiple wooden rods coiled with zinc and copper wire to form a crude battery. Users were instructed to soak the belt in diluted vinegar and then wear it under their clothing against the skin. Of course, it must have been working, since there was a very noticeable tingle of electric current. One style of belt even included a cup to hold the man’s scrotum in coils of vinegar-soaked zinc and copper while another popular model consisted of a chain arrangement to be worn around the chest.

The belt, as well as the good Professor Pulvermacher’s variation of chains, gained a wide following. Not surprisingly, it even worked its way into nineteenth-century literature. In Madame Bovary, when Homais, the hopelessly pretentious pharmacist, mourns Madame Bovary’s death, he throws himself into the fashionable chic, feeling the dead woman’s influence from beyond the grave. “He was enthusiastic about the hydro-electric Pulvermacher chains; he wore one himself, and when at night he took off his flannel vest, Madame Homais stood quite dazzled before the golden spiral beneath which he was hidden, and felt her ardor redouble for this man more bandaged than a Scythian, and splendid as one of the Magi.”

There were debunkers of these frauds at the time, but they faced an uphill battle. In 1892 when the Electrical Review sought to expose the charlatans of electric belts, England’s Medical Battery Company, which made the popular Harness Belt, took the publication to court for libel. The suit was unsuccessful.

One of the more ingenious, if not dubious, uses of battery–powered electrotherapy was employed to torment at least one member of the press. Jacob Riis, the journalist and photographer who stirred America’s conscience to the plight of the poor in his book How the Other Half Lives (1890), detailed his own experiences with electrotherapy in a later compilation of his work called The Making of an American (1901).

I remember well when the temptation came to me once after a quiet hour with Police Commissioner Matthews, who had been telling me the inside history of an affair which just then was setting the whole town by the ears. I told him that I thought I should have to print it; it was too good to keep. No, it wouldn’t do, he said. I knew well enough he was right, but I insisted; the chance was too good a one to miss. Mr. Matthews shook his head. He was an invalid, and was taking his daily treatment with an electric battery while we talked and smoked. He warned me laughingly against the consequences of what I proposed to do, and changed the subject.

“Ever try these?” he said, giving me the handles. I took them, unsuspecting, and felt the current tingle in my finger-tips. The next instant it gripped me like a vice. I squirmed with pain.

“Stop!” I yelled, and tried to throw the things away; but my hands crooked themselves about them like a bird’s claws and held them fast. They would not let go. I looked at the Commissioner.

He was studying the battery leisurely, and slowly pulling out the plug that increased the current.

“For mercy’s sake, stop!” I called to him. He looked up inquiringly.

“About that interview, now,” he drawled. “Do you think you ought to print—”

“Wow, wow! Let go, I tell you!” It hurt dreadfully. He pulled the thing out another peg.

“You know it wouldn’t do, really. Now, if—” He made as if to still further increase the current. I surrendered.

“Let up,” I begged, “and I will not say a word. Only let up.”

He set me free. He never spoke of it once in all the years I knew him, but now and again he would offer me, with a dry smile, the use of his battery as “very good for the health.” I always declined with thanks.

Not only did the belts and electrotherapy gain in popularity, they also drew in some unlikely promoters. Perhaps the strangest and most unlikely was Henry Gaylord Wilshire. Born in Ohio to a prominent family, he dropped out of Harvard and moved to Southern California in the 1880s, eventually making his fortune in real estate—Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles is named for him. If nothing else, he was a man of widely varied and very often conflicting passions. A ruthless real estate tycoon who ran for Congress as a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, Wilshire attracted a high-profile salon of radical intellectuals and writers that included H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Upton Sinclair.

Then in 1925 he began promoting the I-ON-A-CO electric collar, an electromagnetic device that very much resembled a horse harness. The collar was based on the extraordinarily dubious theory that an electromagnetic field somehow interacted with the body’s natural iron content to restore health. According to most accounts, Wilshire was genuinely sincere in his belief that the belt provided medicinal benefits and even enlisted his friend Upton Sinclair to promote the thing. Wilshire himself not only invested heavily in the thing, but took to the road carrying with him all of the credibility of a millionaire. By the time the I-ON-A-CO craze petered out in the late 1920s, thousands of collars had been sold and tens of thousands of people treated in storefront clinics.

Even those who should have known better apparently fell for the miracle cures promised by electrotherapy. In February of 1887, Electrical Review published a story headlined “An Electric Treat,” reporting that congressmen were sneaking off to the basement of the capitol building to fill themselves with an invigorating dose of electricity from a device rigged up in the boiler room. And, a few years later, Sir Thomas Barlow, president of the Royal College of Physicians in London, was advocating “electric cocktails” that consisted of a moist sponge fitted atop a battery and swabbed across the face.

“When you meet a friend don’t offer him alcoholic stimulation; treat him to an electric cocktail,” Barlow was quoted as saying. “You do not get, after electric stimulation, the injurious reaction that always follows a dose of alcohol.” Something may have been lost in translation, because while the electric cocktail actually did come into fashion, it was prepared not with a battery and sponge, but with standard alcohol and a “trifle of sugar.” A probe fitted with a platinum element connected to a battery heated the mixture. “It promises to be a fashionable winter beverage, and can be made cold or hot,” the Electrical Reviewreported in 1885.