an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

what is electricity? part 9 – the first battery

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from Wikipedia, etc

Canto: So, going back to the eighteenth century, now. The exploration of electricity was becoming thoroughly fashionable. Lightning was an obviously powerful force that scientists of the day were looking to tame and harness. Most of these modern histories begin with Franklin, but what, or who, turned him on to the subject?

Jacinta: Well of course knowledge and influences developed slowly in the eighteenth century and before. I’ve already spoken of William Gilbert’s De Magnete, written some 150 years before Franklin’s work. Gilbert posited that the Earth itself was essentially a gigantic magnet, with an iron core, which was pretty clever in 1600. He studied static electricity, using amber, and called its effects an electric force, the first modern usage. He was one of the first modern experimentalists, undervalued in his own time, most unfortunately by Francis Bacon, who contributed so much to the development of new scientific methods.

Canto: The 1600s were important in Britain, of course, the period of their Scientific Enlightenment, but one of the most intriguing and brilliant experimenters upon electrostatics in that century was the German polymath Otto von Guericke. His work on vacuums and static electricity in the mid 17th century found its way to England and inspired Robert Boyle to experiment in these fields. But no great breakthroughs occurred, at least for electricity, and no real attempts were made to mathematise electrical concepts until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Jacinta: Yes, we won’t dwell for too long on these pioneers (famous last words), but J L Heilbron’s 1979 book Electricity in the 17th and 18th centuries: a study of early modern physics, much of which is available online, should guide us towards the advances made by Volta and the nineteenth century mathematisers, notably Maxwell.

Canto: Yes, Heilbron divides the physics of this period into three stages, the first, before 1700, was a relatively amateur, narrow form of neo-Aristotelian systemising (pace Gilbert), and the second involved new discoveries and experiments treated without systematic quantising, which gave way to a more modern, mathematical third stage leading to new discoveries and inventions, such as the battery, just at the end of the 18th century.

Jacinta: We’ve mentioned triboelectric effects in an earlier post. These were the first static effects, between all sorts of different materials, experimented with by scientific pioneers such as Newton and many others. The enormous variety of these effects were, and still are, difficult to quantise. Why was their attraction in some cases and repulsion in others? In fact, ACR, the attraction-contact-repulsion process, came gradually to be recognised, but with no understanding of atoms and particles, or elements in the modern sense, little sense could be made of it.

Canto: There were some attempts to characterise the phenomenon, which was considered a fluid in those early days. In 1733 the French chemist Charles DuFay, one of many electrical experimenters of the time, divided these fluids into two types, vitreous and resinous – the positive and negative forms of today, sort of. Perhaps he was trying to define an attracting and a repelling force.

Jacinta: Effluvia was in the air at that time… ‘particles of electrical matter, which effect attraction and repulsion either by direct impact or by mobilising the air’, to quote Heilbron. But I should mention here the work of Stephen Gray, one of those marvellous upwellers from the lower classes with great practical skills and an experimental spirit, who, like Newton, built his own telescope, with which he made discoveries about sunspots and other things. An obviously alert observer, he noted that electricity could be conducted over distances in various substances, while other substances, such as silk, damped down the effect, acting as insulators. These discoveries were of vital importance, but Gray is probably the most underrated and unrecognised of all the electrical pioneers.

Canto: With the ‘discovery’ of the Leyden jar in 1745 the idea of electricity as a fluid, or two fluids, was laid to rest. This instrument, the key components of which were a jar of glass with metal sheets attached to its inner and outer surfaces, and ‘a metal terminal projecting vertically through the jar lid to make contact with the inner foil’ (Wikipedia), was the first type of capacitor, though it took time for their storage capacity, and those of other devices, to be quantised. Today it’s understood that these early Leyden jars could be charged to as much as 60,000 volts.

Jacinta: Another important early device was called an electrophore, or electrophorus, first invented in 1762 and later improved by Alessandro Volta. These instruments, and the increasing realisation throughout the eighteenth century that this mysterious force, substance or capacity called electricity was a Big Thing, with enormous potential, kept interest in the phenomenon bubbling along.

Canto: An electrophore typically consists of a plastic plate, which won’t conduct electricity, connected to a metal conducting disc with an insulating handle. There are some useful demonstration videos of this, and I’m describing one. If you rub the plastic with some silk cloth, this will, as we now know, transfer electrons from the silk to the plastic, giving it a negative charge (the triboelectric effect). Placing the metal disc on the plastic will not enable too much transfer of electrons, or electron flow. It will in fact cause a polarisation in the disc, positively charging it on the side facing the plastic, and negatively charging it on its opposite side, due to like charges repelling, though this wasn’t known in Volta’s time.

Jacinta: The plastic plate, or sheet, has become a dielectric, I think, which is a pretty complicated concept, involving dielectric constants and relatively complicated mathematical formulae, but for our current purpose (and theirs in the 18th century) this electrophore was a useful demonstrator of static electricity. The metal plate was on balance neutral in charge, but in a sense magnetised, with a negative charge on its upper side, which could be grounded at a touch – causing a spark. Being replaced on the plastic, it could again have its charges separated, a cycle which could be endlessly repeated in theory, though not in practice – due ultimately to the second law of thermodynamics, perhaps.

Canto: So, the battery. It was a term coined by Franklin, giving a sense of overwhelming power, though what he created in connecting Leyden jars in an array was a capacitor.

Jacinta: In fact even one Leyden jar is a capacitor. So what he created was a battery of capacitors, though not quite a supercapacitor. I think.

Canto: Volta is famously supposed to have arrived, in a roundabout way, at the construction of an effective battery due to his dispute with a soon-to-be-former friend Louis Galvani (as described in part 4 of this series), and the dispute led him to further experiments. He came to realise that the reason Galvani’s dead frogs were ‘reanimated’ by electricity had to do with the wires being used, and the chemistry of the frogs.

Jacinta: And meanwhile this ‘reanimation’ business became popularised by Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, among others, with popular displays and discussions which led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 

Canto: And meanwhile again, Volta experimented with different wires, including zinc and silver, and with moisture, because he noticed that wetness had an electrifying effect. He soon found that these wires of silver and zinc, connected in a series of water containers, increased the electric effect. Further experimentation with silver and zinc discs, separated by cardboard saturated in salt water, enhanced the effect – the more discs, the stronger the effect. And this effect was permanent (more or less). A battery in the modern sense.

Jacinta: In effect. So voltage is electric potential, as we keep saying. So it’s there even when the battery isn’t connected to anything, a storage device which provides electrical flow when connected. And that potential is measurable, as in a 1.5v battery. Current is the actual flow, which is often quite small, especially in Volta’s original pile, though he was able to build a potential, or voltage of up to 20v. The key to an effective battery, I think, is to get as much current per volt as possible. That’s current flowing steadily, reliably and safely over time. A typical lithium ion phone battery of  3.7 volts delivers between 100 and 400 milliamps of current, whereas Volta’s pile will get you not much more than 1/2 of a milliamp of steady flow. And by the way, why did salt enhance the electrical effect?

Canto: That has to do with with the ionisation of the salt, which when dissolved in water splits into positively charged sodium ions and negatively charged chlorine ions. Sending a current through the water will drive the chlorine ions to the positive terminal and the sodium ions to the negative terminal. This creates a bridge of ions, somehow.

Jacinta: Yeah, great explanation. And apparently one of the most interesting features of Volta’s weak battery, or voltaic pile, at the time was its use in separating H2O into hydrogen and oxygen. This new chemical power – electrolysis – particularly interested Humphrey Davy in England. He proceeded to create the largest battery of the age at the Royal Institution, using it to isolate a large number of elements for the first time, including sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, boron and strontium. That was in the first decade of the 19th century – and electricity was really coming of age.

References (just some)

How Volta Invented the First Battery Because He Was Jealous of Galvani’s Frog (video – Kathy loves physics)


Written by stewart henderson

January 22, 2022 at 7:18 am

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