The Battery

By HENRY SCHLESINGER

Batteries are silent operators, puttering away unnoticed until they die. How many among us have hymned their praise — the one that powered the defibrillator…maybe — and how many of us have spoken oath-soaked ill of their dead? No contest. Not only are they silent, they are inscrutable. Really, what is a battery? Enter Henry Schlesinger, science journalist, who makes bell-clear and striking the inner life of those suspiciously hefty, suspiciously expensive little barrels. A battery, then, is an electrical storage device, wherein two dissimilar metals in an acidic or alkaline solution generate a charge through a chemical reaction that releases electrons. Now you know why not to cut one open with a hacksaw, even if electricity still eludes you, just like it did the early 19th-century battery makers. Back then, what electricity was good for — other than as chemist’s tool or entertainer’s bit of wow — was anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t a heavy-lifter like coal, which would fire the industrial revolution. Not until the telegraph would electricity enter the commercial big-time, and batteries would provide the juice.

The battery has gone through many figurations and the number of players in the drama has been legion, but Schlesinger keeps this historical narrative brisk, slowing only at critical junctures, and a keen distinction is drawn between inventors and entrepreneurs: “For better or worse, popular history belongs to the clever engineers who successfully apply scientific principles and not to the scientific explorers” — listen up, Messrs. Edison, Morse, et al. Schlesinger gives the little-sung their due, describes the battery’s arc from curio to indispensable, and mixes up the hard science with bright anecdotes, such as coffins equipped by battery-driven alarms for the prematurely interred, and the Electric Girl Light Company, from whom “party hosts could rent young ladies decorated with electric lights powered by small batteries.” Schlesinger is of a mind with those who think “significant improvements in traditional battery technology may be coming to an end” with the lithium-ion variety — its ease of recharge, low self-discharge, and happily congruent obsolescence: “Although they generally don’t last beyond three years, neither do most of the products they power.” (Electric car batteries are only ironically “portable,” but their technology is at a standstill, Schlesinger reports, and in need of a well-funded push akin to that given the telegraph or NASA.) Still, look what the little battery has brought us: toy trains, telephones, transistor radios, computers. Schlesinger’s tale attests to batteries having galvanized our culture, as surely as they have our gadgets.