Edison: His Life and Inventions HTML version

The Development Of The Edison Storage Battery
IT is more than a hundred years since the elementary principle of the storage battery or
"accumulator" was detected by a Frenchman named Gautherot; it is just fifty years since
another Frenchman, named Plante, discovered that on taking two thin plates of sheet lead,
immersing them in dilute sulphuric acid, and passing an electric current through the cell,
the combination exhibited the ability to give back part of the original charging current,
owing to the chemical changes and reactions set up. Plante coiled up his sheets into a
very handy cell like a little roll of carpet or pastry; but the trouble was that the battery
took a long time to "form." One sheet becoming coated with lead peroxide and the other
with finely divided or spongy metallic lead, they would receive current, and then, even
after a long period of inaction, furnish or return an electromotive force of from 1.85 to
2.2 volts. This ability to store up electrical energy produced by dynamos in hours
otherwise idle, whether driven by steam, wind, or water, was a distinct advance in the art;
but the sensational step was taken about 1880, when Faure in France and Brush in
America broke away from the slow and weary process of "form- ing" the plates, and hit
on clever methods of furnishing them "ready made," so to speak, by dabbing red lead
onto lead-grid plates, just as butter is spread on a slice of home-made bread. This brought
the storage battery at once into use as a practical, manufactured piece of apparatus; and
the world was captivated with the idea. The great English scientist, Sir William Thomson,
went wild with enthusiasm when a Faure "box of electricity" was brought over from Paris
to him in 1881 containing a million foot-pounds of stored energy. His biographer, Dr.
Sylvanus P. Thompson, describes him as lying ill in bed with a wounded leg, and
watching results with an incandescent lamp fastened to his bed curtain by a safety-pin,
and lit up by current from the little Faure cell. Said Sir William: "It is going to be a most
valuable, practical affair--as valuable as water-cisterns to people whether they had or had
not systems of water- pipes and water-supply." Indeed, in one outburst of panegyric the
shrewd physicist remarked that he saw in it "a realization of the most ardently and
increasingly felt scientific aspiration of his life--an aspiration which he hardly dared to
expect or to see realized." A little later, however, Sir William, always cautious and canny,
began to discover the inherent defects of the primitive battery, as to disintegration,
inefficiency, costliness, etc., and though offered tempting inducements, declined to lend
his name to its financial introduction. Nevertheless, he accepted the principle as valuable,
and put the battery to actual use.
For many years after this episode, the modern lead- lead type of battery thus brought
forward with so great a flourish of trumpets had a hard time of it. Edison's attitude toward
it, even as a useful supplement to his lighting system, was always one of scepticism, and
he remarked contemptuously that the best storage battery he knew was a ton of coal. The
financial fortunes of the battery, on both sides of the Atlantic, were as varied and as
disastrous as its industrial; but it did at last emerge, and "made good." By 1905, the
production of lead-lead storage batteries in the United States alone had reached a value
for the year of nearly $3,000,000, and it has increased greatly since that time. The storage
battery is now regarded as an important and indispensable adjunct in nearly all modern
electric-lighting and electric- railway systems of any magnitude; and in 1909, in spite of