The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution

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Overview

In the tradition of Mark Kurlansky's Cod and David Bodanis's E=MC2, The Battery is the first popular history of the technology that harnessed electricity and powered the greatest scientific and technological advances of our time.

What began as a long-running dispute in biology, involving a dead frog's twitching leg, a scalpel, and a metal plate, would become an invention that transformed the history of the world: the battery. From Alessandro Volta's first copper-and-zinc model ...

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The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution

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Overview

In the tradition of Mark Kurlansky's Cod and David Bodanis's E=MC2, The Battery is the first popular history of the technology that harnessed electricity and powered the greatest scientific and technological advances of our time.

What began as a long-running dispute in biology, involving a dead frog's twitching leg, a scalpel, and a metal plate, would become an invention that transformed the history of the world: the battery. From Alessandro Volta's first copper-and-zinc model in 1800 to twenty-first-century technological breakthroughs, science journalist Henry Schlesinger traces the history of this essential power source and demonstrates its impact on our lives.

Volta's first battery not only settled the frog's leg question, it also unleashed a field of scientific research that led to the discovery of new elements and new inventions, from Samuel Morse's telegraph to Alexander Graham Bell's telephone to Thomas Edison's incandescent lightbulb. And recent advances like nanotechnology are poised to create a new generation of paradigm-shifting energy sources.

Schlesinger introduces the charlatans and geniuses, paupers and magnates, attracted to the power of the battery, including Michael Faraday, Guglielmo Marconi, Gaylord Wilshire, and Hugo Gernsback, the publisher and would-be inventor who coined the term "science fiction." A kaleidoscopic tour of an ingenious invention that helped usher in the modern world, The Battery is as entertaining as it is enlightening.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Obscured by the handheld electronic devices that pervade our high-tech culture is the battery that powers them all. Technology journalist Schlesinger provides an illuminating historical account of a device whose enormous influence has been downplayed or misunderstood. The term “battery” is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who arranged Leyden jars in a manner akin to a battery of cannon. But possible early electrochemical batteries—the centuries-old Baghdad batteries—discovered by archeologists in the 1930s remain controversial, as the appendix details. Schlesinger (Spycraft) discusses the battery's evolution from the Italian Alessandro Volta's early 19th-century copper and zinc model through 21st-century advances in nanotechnology. In 1800 Volta constructed his famous “pile” of metal discs; touching each end generated a shock that could then be repeated. Yet the process remained mysterious for decades. While electric outlets replaced batteries in much of the 20th century, that process has recently been reversed, as laptop users surely appreciate. Combining enormous learning with a lively and entertaining style, this book deserves a wide general readership. 30 b&w line drawings. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
An irresistibly entertaining history of electricity from the point of view of the humble battery. A battery is a container in which a chemical reaction produces an electric current. Electricity was a mysterious but familiar phenomenon in 1800 when Alessandro Volta built his "pile," stacking dozens of metal discs, each separated by a brine-soaked cloth. Touching each end produced a shock, which was repeated with each touch. This first battery was a dazzling breakthrough, writes science writer Schlesinger (co-author: Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs, from Communism to al-Qaeda, 2008), because all previous electrical phenomena only produced a single jolt. A device that produced a steady current delighted both scientists and the general public-doctors proclaimed its curative properties, Mary Shelley used it to animate Frankenstein. Improvements occurred steadily, but it was not until the 1840s that commercial success and the "technological revolution" occurred with the telegraph, which was entirely powered by batteries until the century's end. By 1900 breakthroughs transformed batteries from complex contraptions requiring constant attention to easily recharged wet cells and the universal, disposable dry cell. Beginning with the flashlight-invented in 1898-battery-powered gadgets became household necessities, but Schlesinger reminds readers that several decades of the 20th century passed before electric outlets replaced batteries in telephones, radios and phonographs. Ironically, during the past few decades, the vastly lower power consumption of integrated circuits has reversed this process, and batteries are now taking back these roles as well as powering our increasinglyminuscule computers, tools and toys. Schlesinger's modest technical explanations may not satisfy sophisticated science buffs, but he delivers high-quality popular-science writing.
Richard Zacks
Just as a cracker-size battery powers a cell phone for days, so does Schlesigner’s wit enliven an unlikely topic—The History of the ever-shrinking, ever more potent Battery.”
Michael Belfiore
Henry Schlesinger’s fascinating and supurbly researched history of the battery is the story of civilization as we know it. The Battery illuminates in compellingly rich detail the scientists and entrepreneurs responsible for so much of the technology we take for granted today.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Batteries are silent operators, puttering away unnoticed until they die. How many among us have hymned their praise -- the one that powered the defibrillatorâ??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.

--Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061442933
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/5/2010
  • Pages: 308
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Henry R. Schlesinger is a journalist and author specializing in science and emerging technologies. He has written extensively for Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, MIT's Technology Review, and Smithsonian magazine. The coauthor of Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda, he lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

Introduction History in Real Time vii

1 A World without Science 1

2 The Death of Superstition 10

3 The Tale of the Frog 39

4 Science, Showmanship, and the Voltaic Pile 51

5 Not a Gentleman of Science 69

6 What Hath God Wrought? 97

7 Finally, Something Useful 131

8 Power and Light 141

9 Genius by Design 169

10 Victorian Age of Discovery 176

11 Without Wires 184

12 Mass-Marketing Miracles 198

13 What Will They Think of Next? 213

14 Distance Dies in the Parlor 217

15 The Endless Frontier 225

16 See It! Hear It! Get It! 251

17 Smaller and Smaller 262

18 Always On 270

19 Lab Reports 274

Epilogue Bring on the Future 279

Appendix Those Troublesome Baghdad Batteries 283

Selected Bibliography 289

Index 297

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2013

    Neko

    Nah i actually finished what i was going to say. But theres on thing. I have a bad grade in literature so i wont be able to go on my nook on weekdays until i bring it up.

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