So, why is this thing called a battery and what does it have to do with a military battery which is a group of missiles or cannons? From shocking jars to Volta and beyond. Let’s go!
As soon as 40-year-old Ben Franklin built an electricity machine in 1746 he became addicted to performing shocking demonstrations writing, “my Friends come continually in crowds to see them, I have, during some months past, had little leisure for anything else.” One of the things Franklin liked to use in these experiments was a jar that could store electricity from the electricity machine and then give it later in a jolt called a “Leyden jar”. Being a thrill-seeker, Franklin liked to use multiple Leyden jars in a row to really make a good shock. Anyway, by 1749, Franklin started calling multiple Leyden jars a Battery of Leyden jars as the jars reminded him of a battery of cannons, and the name stuck. In 1751, Franklin published a book of his letters about electricity, and soon all of Europe was debating his ideas and recreating his “fun” demonstrations with a particular interest in his theory that lightning was the same electricity as the shocks he was getting at home.
Inspired by Franklin, on May 10, 1752, a retired soldier named Coiffier (at the request of his landlord Thomas Dalibard) verified this theory by getting sparks from a metal pole in a lightning storm in Marley, France! They thought they were capturing lightning but really, they were getting the charges from induction. Potato, Pahtato. It instantly became clear to everyone involved that not only is lightning electric but a big pointed metal stick could work to stop the “terrible mischief” of electrical strikes. By 1753 Ben Franklin published a how-to manual for lightning rods in his “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” Anyway, “the Marley experiment” caused international scientific interest in electrical storms. This inspired a married couple Laura Bassi and her far less famous husband Giuseppe Veratti, both of whom were independent physics professors at the University of Bologna, to become the first people in the papal state to “catch electricity from a thundercloud”. However, when they attempted to install lightning rods there were riots from the worried populous so they took them down.
Laura Bassi, who was prevented from teaching at the university due to her gender, taught her students the physics of Franklin in her home. Safe from the doubting populous and the restrictive University, Bassi set up an outdoor electricity laboratory to study the electrical effects of lightning clouds. In fact, she had to set up two because her first outdoor laboratory was so popular, that she had to change locations to make enough room. Anyway, one of the students pushing his way to see the amazing electrical results was a biology student named Luigi Galvani. In I762, just after graduating, Galvani married a woman named Lucia who was the daughter of the head of the science department and both Luigi and Lucia worked full time as Lucia’s father’s assistant. 12 years later, in 1774, Galvani’s father-in-law died and Galvani became a professor who was required to do his own original research which Luigi and Lucia Galvani happily did. [Side note: in 1776 Laura Bassi was awarded Galvani’s father-in-law’s old position making her not only the first female professor in modern history but also the first female head of a science department and finally, finally, allowed to teach in the university itself! Tragically, she ended up dying just 2 years later from a heart attack and is often ignored by historians.] Back to the Galvanis: in 1780 their work was poached by a rival and they decided at the last minute to try something new to them on the effect of electricity on biological systems. That was when Galvani’s assistant accidentally realized that electricity not only makes animals like frogs jump, but it also makes dead frogs jump! The Galvanis then electrified every dead animal they could find. To be thorough, they then created their own outdoor electrical laboratory to verify that dead frogs would jump in thunderstorms too. That was when they realized that the frogs jumped on calm days which is how Galvani realized that two different metals (metal in the wire holding the frog and the metal in the gate) could make an electric shock! Galvani went all Dr. Frankenstein about it and pushed a theory that (we believe to this day) that electricity is the “life force” that causes us to function. [His nephew Aldini took it a step further in the Dr. Frankenstein department and actually electrified AND ANIMATED dead bodies a few years later!] Galvani published in 1791 and the scientific world was entranced soon everyone was electrifying dead animals in what they were calling galvanic experiments (which is the origin of the term galvanize to mean “shock or excite (someone) into taking action”). Italy’s premier electrician Alessandro Volta declared that Galvani’s results were “miraculous” and dropped all of his research to focus on galvanic experiments.
However, Volta soon found that he could get a living frog to jump by attaching two different metals to a frog and he decided that the “magic” came from the two metals and not the living force of any animal. Volta then got into very public debates with Galvani’s nephew about the nature of “galvanism”. Finally, in May of 1800, Volta produced a device that, in his words, combated, “the pretended animal electricity of Galvani.” This device was a pile of zinc and silver with salt water-soaked paper between them which Volta found would give a shock over and over again without any rubbing or electricity machine or thunderstorm or dead frog in sight! In fact, Volta had just invented the battery. Of course, Volta did not call it a battery, he preferred the term “artificial electric organ” which…. Nope. I am NOT having an opinion. Volta’s “device” was instantly popular: not only was it useful to shock alive and dead bodies, but it was quickly found that it could also electrically separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Soon multiple chemists and biologists were experimenting with what was called a Galvanic pile as no one else was willing to call it an artificial electric organ. The first reference I can find that called volta’s device a battery is from seven months later in December 1800, when a report on “Volta’s Galvanic Apparatus” in France referred to Volta’s device as “la batterie[i]” and it was translated into English as “the battery” in February of 1801.
Two months later, in June 1801, a 22-year-old Chemist named Humpry Davy wrote an article about “the Galvanic Apparatus of Mr. Volta” where he too referred to this device as a “galvanic battery”. I mention Davy in particular because a few months after that Davy was awarded the plum job as a lecturer at The Royal Institution of London where he impressed British high society with his fabulous experiments, love of laughing gas, and startlingly good looks. A contemporary remembers that Davy’s talk, “excited universal attention and unbounded applause. Compliments, invitations and presents were showered upon him in abundance from all quarters.” Once Davy learned that one could make a bigger battery if you put the pile on its side, he proceeded to build the world’s largest battery in 880 square feet of the basement of the Royal Institution. Within a few years, Davy proceeded to use this battery to discover 8 new elements, and the first practical and ridiculously bright electrical lamp. By the 1820s, Davy wrote that we should call these devices “voltaic batteries” instead of “galvanic batteries” as “Let honor be given where honor is due,[ii]” which is what basically happened. Soon, no one remembered that electric batteries meant a bunch of Leyden jars and “voltaic” batteries started to be just called batteries as they do to this very day.
So, why did these people call Volta’s pile a battery in the early 1800s? Well, that was actually because of Volta. First, Volta came up with a name that no one liked. Second, in order to make his invention sound more impressive he repeatedly compared his “pile” to the most powerful electrical device, a bunch of Leyden jars or an electric battery like when he wrote, “my new instrument…. imitates the effects of the Leyden flask, or of electric batteries.”
So, to recap: Benjamin Franklin named a bunch of Leyden jars a battery of jars and inspired people to play in thunderstorms. Coiffier got a spark during a thunderstorm for his boss Dalibard in France and inspired Laura Bassi in Italy to play with atmospheric electricity and teach Franklin’s theories to Luigi Galvani. Galvani discovered that electricity could animate dead frogs and so could two different metals. This inspired Alessandro Volta to get continuous electricity from a pile of metal and saltwater which he compared to a battery of Leyden jars. Finally, chemists started using batteries for electrical experiments and some, like Humphry Davy, called Volta’s device a “battery” because they didn’t like the term “artificial electric organ” and the name stuck because everyone thought Davy was cute and his science was top notch.
And that is why the battery is called a battery.
One small addendum: Humphry Davy was so popular in the early 1800s that in 1813 he as an Englishman was given permission by Napoleon Bonaparte to visit France and French-controlled Italy even though they were in the height of the Napoleonic wars! By 1814, Davy made his way to Como, Italy, and met the 69-year-old Volta who gave him a gift of one of his original batteries which are still on display at the Royal Institute. On this visit, Davy brought along his young assistant, a man who has been described by Ernest Rutherford as, “one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time”. That assistant’s name: Michael Faraday.
[i] Dr. Frulander (
[ii] Humphry Davy (1824) from Davy, J Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humpry Davy: Volume 1 (1836) Longman, Rees, Orne, Brown, Green & Longman p. 343