The Power and the Glory

The Battery:
How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution
By Henry Schlesinger
Smithsonian Books; $25.99; 287 pp

You've met it many times, but it's a good bet that you know next to nothing of the life story of the tech world's Rodney Dangerfield. Instead, you dote on the latest handheld device or flashy new car, neither of which could function without the humble battery, the device-within-a-device that has underpinned an enormous slice of high tech's progress.

Author Henry Schlesinger, a science journalist who has written extensively for Popular Science and Smithsonian, became a battery nut while researching a previous book on espionage, a field in which life and death ride on nickel and cadmium more often than you might think. In The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution, Schlesinger serves as a guide on a bus tour through not only the developmental history of the battery but through the lore of many other things electrical. The journey begins in the 1740s with the birth of an early proto-battery known as a Leyden jar, named for the city in the Netherlands where it was first developed. Essentially, Leydens were metal-lined glass vessels used to store static electricity. They delivered a powerful and painful shock to anyone who touched them. Ben Franklin didn't discover electricity, but he did use a Leyden jar, attached to a kite, when he set out to prove the electrical nature of lightning.

The first battery to produce a reliable, steady charge arrived in 1800 from the work of the Italian professor Allessandro Volta, whose name was later given to the unit of electrical potential, the volt. His voltaic pile was a stack of 40 pieces each of zinc and silver separated by pieces of thick paper soaked in water. Being cylindrical, it looks vaguely like a battery but more like a French coffee press. (The book has a number of helpful hand-drawn illustrations.) Its most notable use was in macabre, widely seen stage shows where electrical charges were used to contort the faces of freshly decapitated prisoners. The author theorizes that these spectacles inspired Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein.

Despite his many tangents, Schlesinger is most interested in the battery's influence on technological progress, not literature. Samuel Morse, for instance, needed batteries to invent the telegraph. We can also thank batteries for the stock ticker, the transistor radio, the cathode ray tube, and the Hubble telescope. Oddly enough, the battery was no friend of Thomas Edison. In the race to build a horseless carriage, he failed to perfect a battery-powered automobile as his former employee, Henry Ford, came up with the Model T. Another Edison failure, depending on how you look at it, was a battery-powered vibrating pen for making copies of handwritten documents; it was later adopted by tattoo artists.

Many fortunes were made and lost on batteries. When he died at age 71 in the late 1920s, Russian immigrant Conrad Hubert was worth $6 million, thanks to his American Ever-Ready Co., which commercialized the flashlight. In 1947, Joshua Lionel Cowen claimed he had given Hubert the bright idea, though he wasn't bitter; he made his own fortune selling toy electric trains under the brand name Lionel.

Hubert's company eventually became Eveready, now part of the $4 billion battery concern Energizer Holdings (ENR). Shipping heir Phillip Rogers Mallory left the family business and teamed up with inventor Samuel Ruben in 1925, and their company eventually became Duracell, now part of Procter & Gamble (PG). Before starting Motorola in the late 1920s, Paul Galvin started a battery company that failed to take off.

Despite Schlesinger's emphasis on the science, he manages to keep the book surprisingly lively. The story of portable power, in his telling, takes us in all kinds of entertaining directions. If The Battery has a serious shortcoming, it's Schlesinger's cursory treatment of recent years. Just as the rechargeable era dawns, he runs out of juice. The pivotal 1990s, as lithium-ion batteries came to dominate the digital landscape, are dealt with in one page. Asian electronics companies trounced their rivals and are on "the verge of some very large technological advances." Some readers would be willing to trade a few details on Leyden jars for something that hits closer to home.

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