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 increasingly minuscule computers, tools and toys.
Schlesinger’s modest technical explanations may not satisfy sophisticated science buffs, but he delivers high-quality popular-science writing.