This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Imagine…Portable Electricity

old_batteriesMay8, 1886:  First Dry Cell Battery Patent

German scientist, Dr. Carl Gassner, is issued a German patent for the first “dry” cell battery, which uses zinc as its primary component.  A U.S. patent will be issued to Gassner in 1887. His battery is much like today’s carbon-zinc, “general purpose” batteries, although most people use alkalines.

Gassner Dr Gassner's 'dry' cell, 1889.

Prior to the rise of electrical generators and electrical power grids from around the end of the 19th century, batteries were the main source of electricity. Successive improvements in battery technology permitted the rise of major electrical advances, from early scientific studies to the rise of telegraphs and telephones, leading eventually to portable computers, mobile phones, electric cars and multitudes of other electrical devices.

Earthenware jars containing an iron rod surrounded by a copper cylinder were discovered near Baghdad in 1938. They are believed to have been used by the Parthian civilization that occupied the region about 2000 years ago as a source of electricity to plate gold onto silver.

Earthenware jars containing an iron rod surrounded by a copper cylinder were discovered near Baghdad in 1938. They are believed to have been used by the Parthian civilization that occupied the region about 2000 years ago as a source of electricity to plate gold onto silver.

In 1886, Carl Gassner obtained a German patent (No. 37,758) on a variant of the Leclanché cell, which came to be known as the dry cell because it did not have a free liquid electrolyte.  Instead, the ammonium chloride was mixed with Plaster of Paris to create a paste, with a small amount of zinc chloride added in to extend the shelf life.  The manganese dioxide cathode was dipped in this paste, and both were sealed in a zinc shell, which also acted as the anode.  In November 1887, he obtained the U.S. Patent 373,064 for the same device. This cell was easy to handle and portable. It became the prototype for the dry battery industry.

Leclanché cell

Leclanché cell

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Unlike previous wet cells, Gassner’s dry cell was more solid, did not require maintenance, did not spill, and could be used in any orientation. It provided a potential of 1.5 volts.

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Columbia Dry Cell

The first mass-produced model was the Columbia dry cell first marketed by the National Carbon Company in 1896. The NCCimproved Gassner’s model by replacing the plaster of Paris with coiled cardboard, an innovation that left more space for the cathode and made the battery easier to assemble. It was the first convenient battery for the masses and made portable electrical devices practical.  The flashlight was invented that same year.

flashlight 1899 Ever ready flashlight print ad framed

The zinc-carbon battery (as it came to be known) is still manufactured today.

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