Book Review: The Battery by Henry Schlesinger

TheBatteryby Brad Nelson   5/1/14
Is it possible to write a sort of historical novel in and around the topic of the battery? Suffice it to say, this book isn’t filled will long, boring descriptions of cathodes and anodes. It’s more of a tale of electricity and its applications.

The logical question is, Just how geeky and arcane is this book? The answer is, not that much. Yes, you have to have at least a bit of fascination for electricity and its history in order to be able to plow through some of the trivia (particularly early in the book). But the author does eventually thread together a nice historical picture. His technique is not unlike James Burke in his Connections TV series wherein you get a glimpse at many of the people, inventions, and circumstances that surround the advance of this technology, often taking you on some unexpected twists and turns.

Obviously the focal point is batteries, although in many ways this is more a history of the uses of batteries and the devices that required them. And this fascinating history starts from the first millennium BC and finishes, at the very end of the book, with Schlesinger giving us a brief summary of some of the potential advances in the technology, one of them being the “super capacitor.” And in between these extremes, we see the long march of battery history as steady improvements (but not fundamental changes) are made to it. As wondrous as some of the batteries are that fit inside your iPhone, the basic technology hasn’t changed all that much.

A battery still pretty much consists of two different kinds of metals held suspended in an electrolyte (which might be a simple as lemon juice…soda pop will work as well) with a wire attached at each end of this chain (anode and cathode). Shazam. With such a simple system, you have just created a reliable and controllable electric current as electrons are induced to move from one metal to the other. The various improvements along the way typically regarded the use of new solutions and metals that contributed to added voltage,  capacity, and reduced costs (and sometimes to their safety and ease of maintenance as well, for early batteries typically had to be maintained, the plates cleaned, the solution changed, etc.).

Batteries were a huge step up from the Leyden jars which (acting like a capacitor) could store one jolt of electrical energy, and that was it. You had to recharge it each time you used it. These jars tended to be more amenable to parlor tricks than research. Batteries opened the way for deep and prolonged exploration of electricity. Batteries could be made cheaply and fairly easily. And, in fact, batteries helped to ignite a society-wide fascination with electricity…something we cannot perhaps relate to in our own day and age. What passes for culture-wide exuberance these days tends to be about what the Kardashians are doing.

And although many technicians, scientists, and general tinkerers worked long and hard on batteries with the belief that they would be the main source of power for various applications, it was AC or DC generators that took the early lead. Batteries just couldn’t produce enough juice for any serious industrial or practical applications — with the one huge exception being the telegraph. And this was the industry that was ready-made for the battery, and vice versa, and took off in a huge way.

But obviously things have changed. Now batteries are quite useful for many applications, particularly when combined with low-power electronics such as LCD’s. But back then, in the early days, they actually had electric-powered cars. It seemed by many the wave of the future. But the internal combustion engine put the kibosh on that. And manufacturers are still struggling to make battery-powered cars a truly practical reality.

And with that topic at hand, let me add that this book is not full of revisionist science, environmental wacko-ism, or anything like that. This is a fairly sensible, fair, and straightforward history (if sometimes inaccurate technically, if some of the reviewers at Amazon.com can be believed).

And a time or two, there is some interesting philosophy in the book, such as this bit about Faraday:

A member of a gentle Christian sect, the Sandemanians, Faraday was deeply religious and viewed science—the exploration of nature—as an extension of his heartfelt faith. Although we in the twenty-first century debate the conflict of science and religion, Faraday saw no such division. “The book of nature, which we have to read, is written by the finger of God,” he wrote. For Faraday, “unraveling the mysteries of nature was to discover the manifestations of God.”

All in all, this was a good read and is available in Kindle format. But I admit I did find the early 1/3 of the book to be of less interest than the latter parts. You need to stick with it a bit. • (2720 views)

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.

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2 Responses to Book Review: The Battery by Henry Schlesinger

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I recall seeing part of an episode of Connections, though I do have the book (which is quite interesting). Like the book about the history of the electric light that was reviewed here recently, this could be very interesting.

    There was at least one important research use of a Leyden jar: Ben Franklin used one to receive the charge of a lightning bolt in his famous kite experiment. Did the book mention this?

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Yes, this book would be a good compliment to “Empires of Light.” But I’d start with “Empires of Light” because I think it’s the better book.

      If you watch the “Connection” TV series, start with the first series. Burke is dynamic and engaging in the first season in particular. And then he perhaps tries to extend that format past its sell date in “The Day the Universe Changed.” Even then, there are times in the first series that you’ll find yourself yelling at the TV screen, “Just get on with it.”

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