A German archaeologist named Wilhelm Konig discovered the oldest battery known to man, in Baghdad. It was a clay pot with an iron rod and a copper cylinder inside it and was over 2000 years old. It would have contained vinegar or wine, an acidic material that would have acted as the electrolyte (see How does a cordless power tool battery work?) Recreations of the battery have shown that it would have produced 1-2 volts (V) of electricity.
It wasn’t until the late 1700s that the ‘modern’ battery was invented by Count Alessandro Volta, an Italian, who also lent his name to the volt. It was a stack of zinc and copper plates with saltwater-soaked paper in between, known as a ‘Voltaic Pile.’ It produced a steady flow of electricity but the salt corroded the plates quickly.
In 1836, an English chemist called John Daniell created the ‘Daniell cell,’ a type of ‘wet cell’ so-called because the electrolyte was a liquid. It introduced the idea of having a positive and negative end of a battery, a concept still used in today’s batteries. The design was improved by others to produce the ‘gravity cell’…
A copper plate sits at the base of a glass jar and a zinc plate is suspended at the top. The jar is half full of copper sulphate solution, which is heavy and sinks to the bottom of the jar, and half full of zinc sulphate solution, which is lighter and rises to the top. Electrons pass between the positive copper end and the negative zinc end to produce electricity.
In 1888, a German called Dr. Carl Gassner invented the dry cell. This used a paste instead of a liquid as an electrolyte so it could be moved around and knocked over and it would still work. This broadened the battery horizon as it meant that they could become portable and it wasn’t long afterwards that batteries began to be made and sold commercially.
None of the above batteries were rechargeable, however. Rechargeable batteries have only really become commercially available in the last few decades, although they were actually invented in 1859 by Gaston Planté.
He made the first lead-acid battery. It uses lead and lead dioxide as the electrodes and sulphuric acid as the electrolyte. It doesn’t last as long as the more modern lithium batteries but it is still used today because it is ideal for providing a burst of energy to start petrol and diesel cars.
During the mid-1950s, battery designs and improvements truly took off with the development of small, portable batteries as we know them today. In 1958, a nickel cadmium rechargeable battery system was made commercially available.