Dead-End Road

The long tale of battery evolution, starring unsuspecting frogs, pink bunnies and doomed satellites.
Dwight Eschliman

200 B.C.E. Parthians in present-day Baghdad make a crude battery, an iron rod surrounded by a copper cylinder inside a clay jar filled with vinegar.

1780 Italian physicist Luigi Galvani discovers that a frog will twitch as if shocked when brass hooks attached to its nerves are touched to an iron plate. He calls it “animal electricity.”

1800 Setting out to trump Galvani, Italian physicist Alessandro Volta invents the first modern battery, using zinc and copper separated by a salt solution.

1859 French physicist Gaston Plante develops the lead-acid cell, the first rechargeable battery. The same chemistry is still used in automotive batteries.

1896 The National Carbon Company in San Francisco produces the first battery for consumer use, a six-inch-long zinc-carbon cell used mainly in telephones.

1898 Size-D zinc-carbon batteries make their debut inside a paper tube along with a bulb and a brass reflector–the first “electric hand torch.”

1899 Swedish engineer Waldmar Jungner invents the nickel-cadmium battery (NiCd). It leaks. This flaw, along with its high cost, keeps it from being useful for another 50 years or so.

1947 Georg Neumann perfects a gas-tight seal for leaky NiCd cells, ushering in cordless devices.

1956 Bowers Battery and Spark Plug Co. popularizes the idea that storing batteries in the icebox protects them from expiring prematurely.

1957 The first battery-powered pacemaker uses a mercury-zinc battery.

1959 Eveready researcher Lew Urry develops the first commercial alkaline in Parma, Ohio; it lasts eight times as long as zinc-carbon cells. His recipe remains the standard for disposables.

1960 Duracell introduces the AA alkaline.

1965 Proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells, introduced 10 years earlier by GE, power the Gemini 5 mission. Their questionable performance on this and subsequent Gemini spaceflights causes NASA to opt for alkaline fuel cells on the Apollo missions.

1967 Breakthrough research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on nonaqueous electrolytes makes possible batteries based on lithium, which reacts violently when exposed to moisture.

1974 Duracell is the first battery maker to advertise on TV. Ads feature pink bunnies with snare drums–the Duracell-powered toy lasts longest.

1980 Eveready brands their alkaline
batteries Energizer.

1981 Battery-powered “laptops” arrive: Osbourne I weighs 24 pounds. Epson’s HX-20 weighs four pounds and runs for 50 hours
on rechargeable NiCds; its performance is comparable to today’s graphing calculators.

1987 Energizer introduces freshness dating on alkaline cells.

1989 DDB Needham’s Energizer bunny campaign marches onto the scene, parodying former Duracell ads. It’s later named one of the top five ad icons of the 20th century. It’s still going.

1990 NiMH batteries go on sale, taking on NiCds in the rechargeable market.

1990 The Hubble Space Telescope takes rechargeable nickel-hydrogen batteries into space.

1990 To corral metallic lithium’s volatility, Sony engineers use ionic lithium. Behold, the rechargeable Li-ion cell!

1992 Energizer markets the first disposable Li-ion AA.

1995 Duracell premieres the Smart Battery
system for rechargeables. A microchip assesses the battery’s charge and condi-tion and communicates with the charger.

1996 President Clinton signs the Mercury-
Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act, which sets guidelines for the discontinuation of mercury cells.

1999 Lithium-ion polymer batteries hit the consumer market. The moldable plastic allows product designers to create slimmer-profile devices.

1999 The prototypes of Urry’s alkaline battery are acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

2002 Get your batteries out of the cold. Consumer Reports confirms that refrigerating alkaline batteries doesn’t do any good.

2003 Duracell launches primary prismatic batteries. A flat, rectangular shape makes these cells ideal for ever-
slimmer digital cameras and other high-drain devices.

MAY 2004 Gillette makes the first battery-
powered disposable razor–the vibrating handle, the company says, emits pulses to prop up stubble.

JUNE 2004 MTI Micro Fuel Cells introduces a proof-of-concept direct-methanol fuel cell that runs handheld devices, such as the prototype HP Pocket PC pictured here.

2007 The Hubble space telescope’s 17-year-old nickel-hydrogen batteries conk out, dooming the satellite.