Happy National Battery Day!

The arrival of National Battery Day inspires some thoughts about batteries, who invented them, and what we do with them.

Jon Peddie

Hard to believe another year has rolled by and here we are, just after Valentine’s day celebrating another National Battery day—wow!

While unable to find out who invented Battery Day, or exactly when, I was able to trace it back to 2009. Why February 18 for this national observance? The best reason I can think of is that it’s the birthday of Alessandro Volta (1745–1827), the inventor of the electric battery. Volta was born February 18, 1745 in Como, in the Duchy of Milan.​

Alessandro Volta (1745-1927)

Three years after Volta was born, in 1748, Benjamin Franklin introduced the term “battery” to describe an array of charged glass plates, although it’s not clear if he ever made a storage device.

Those were exciting times and Volta, a professor of experimental physics in the University of Pavia, wasn’t alone in the experiments and discoveries of electricity. Luigi Galvani (1737–1798), another Italian physicist, discovered what he named “animal electricity” when two different metals were connected in series with a frog's leg and to one another. Galvani's name survives as a verb in everyday language (galvanize) as well as in more specialized terms: Galvanic cell, Galvani potential, Galvanic corrosion, the Galvanometer.

Volta realized that the frog's leg served as both a conductor of electricity (what we would now call an electrolyte) and as a detector of electricity. He replaced the frog's leg with brine-soaked paper, and detected the flow of electricity by other means familiar to him from his previous studies, and built what he called the Voltaic pile.

A Voltaic pile on display in the Tempio Voltiano (the Volta Temple)
near Volta's home in Como.

Volta discovered the electrochemical series, and the law that the electromotive force (EMF) of a galvanic cell, consisting of a pair of metal electrodes separated by electrolyte, is the difference between their two electrode potentials (thus, two identical electrodes and a common electrolyte give zero net EMF). This may be called Volta's Law of the electrochemical series.

Volta discovered that when zinc and copper are placed into an acid or saline solution, the zinc atoms break down and flow in a current and the copper atoms barely move. That is how modern chemical batteries work. The zinc becomes a negative pole and the copper begins the positive pole.

Some years later, William Cruickshank, a Scottish military surgeon and chemist, and professor of chemistry at the Royal Military Academy, at Woolwich, designed the first battery for mass production in 1802. And 20 years later, John Daniell, the first professor of chemistry at King's College London developed a way to reduce corrosion when batteries weren’t being used and invented the Daniell Cell, which incorporated mercury, reducing the corrosion.

In 1896, the Eveready Battery Company (founded originally as the National Carbon Company and the American Electrical Novelty & Manufacturing Company) manufactured the first commercially available battery called the Columbia. Two years later, National Carbon Company introduced the first D sized battery for the first flashlight from a U.S. Patent obtained from the inventor David Misell.


The Eveready Energizer Bunny

Batteries stayed pretty much the same until Stanford Ovshinsky (1922 – ) introduced the nickel–metal hydride battery. Despite never going to college, he was a self-taught innovator who worked alongside multiple renowned scientists and held over 400 patents in his lifetime.

Stanford Ovshinsky, Hero of the Planet.

Called a “Hero of the Planet” by Time Magazine in 1999, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015 for his work. His nickel–metal hydride battery has become an important power source for hybrid and all-electric vehicles, consumer electronics, industrial equipment and telecommunications.

However, if we think this is to be a national day (although schools and banks remain open), it should be appended with—National Battery Recycle Day to remind people to recycle and not just throw away used, dead, and leaking batteries.

Each state has its own recycling regulations, so it's worth finding out what your state provides and requires. Your town's website is a great place to begin. Chances are, you'll learn about battery recycling in the section listing “other types” of recycling. (And if it’s not there, tell your town it should be.)

If you're looking to discover where to dispose of batteries try, Earth911 and Call2Recycle which offer online resources to help. Earth911 has an accurate Recycling Locator for all types of batteries where you enter your ZIP code to find the nearest battery recycling center.


The Baghdad Battery: In 1936, during the construction of a new railway near Baghdad, a Parthian tomb was found. Archaeologist Wilhelm Konig found a clay jar containing a copper cylinder encasing an iron rod. Konig suggested the find to be approximately 2,000 years old.

There is still dispute about what it would have been used for, and if it was a battery at all. One theory is it was used for electroplating, but since there are no examples or artifacts of such electroplated items from that period, it’s not considered likely. Another theory is it wasn’t a battery at all but a storage vessel for sacred scrolls. Such things have been found from nearby Seleucia on the Tigris. Since these vessels were exposed to the elements it’s possible that any papyrus or parchment inside had completely rotted away, however, if it was used as a battery of some sort, then it would be the first.

Where does the time go?

And last but not least, the first battery operated watch was produced in 1957 by the Hamilton Watch Company.

Jon’s Hamilton electric Van
Horn watch.

This vintage Hamilton watch was produced between 1957 and 1961, and 13,200 were made. The watch was named after the “father” of the Hamilton Electric Company, Dr. John Van Horn, who was the director of research and development for the Hamilton watch company.