Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The humble battery: 210 years later, the breakthrough we still await

The battery could be a shoo-in for the most confounding of all technologies. Invented in 1799 by Alessandro Volta, it not only has yet to be perfected, but has operated all along on essentially the same chemical principles. Were that it were different: If engineers could figure out how to store sufficient electricity in a sufficiently small, light, safe container, there would be a cascading revolution -- in super-utilities, electric cars, laptops and mobile phones. With the possibility of a trillion-dollar industry at stake -- if consumers en mass decide that they want plug-in hybrids, for instance -- engineers and scientists from the Silicon Valley to Japan, China and Korea are manically working on the technological challenge.

210 years later, the breakthrough we still await

Henry Schlesinger, a New York-based science journalist, sets out to right a gaping authorial wrong in his new book, The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution. In the introduction, Schlesinger notes rightly that an omnibus account of the this exceedingly fascinating technology -- from Volta to today -- simply doesn't exist.

It still doesn't. This is less a history of the battery than a romp through some of the biggest names in the most exciting periods of invention in the last two centuries -- Davy, Faraday, Edison and Marconi. It reads like an extended Google search of such personalities, with a special focus on electric-powered devices. Schlesinger hints as to why the book turned out this way: "If there are detours," he writes, "it is only because the facts uncovered were either too interesting or too much fun to leave out."

Point made. The missing history of the battery is still missing. Yet the result is still fun. Schlesinger's zest for those detours is infectious.

A bit of advice: Skip the first 18 pages, in which Schlesinger orphans far-afield basic science history. From there, he plunges in to his broad tale.

There is Joseph Henry, for instance, who in the 1830s dabbled with batteries and motors in Albany, N.Y., but met obstacles that a reader of current news would find familiar: Though his inventions worked, “coal was still more economical and the technology more or less perfected. Batteries were expensive and their expense, along with their size, increased with the amount of power desired.” At around the same time, a German scientist named Moritz Herman Jacobi invented a battery-powered boat, but “the batteries were simply too heavy and kept the boat from attaining anything near reasonable speed.”

Schlesinger writes that Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph in 1843 was the commercial turning point for both the battery and electric-devices. It spawned enormous telegraph companies that by 1850 had strung some 12,000 miles of cable in a criss-crossing pattern across the country.

In the end, this book is for a pop audience. Schlesinger's seeds the text with asides such as this one: “Romeo and Juliet would have been a much different play if the star-crossed teens had had access to text messaging or cell phones.” Still, more footnotes would have been welcome. For instance, while introducing Pieter van Musschenbroek’s hilarious discovery of the Leyden jar, the first known condenser, Schlesinger finds fault with some of the stories in circulation at the time, and weighs in with what he thinks happened. But we get no sourcing, so one wonders what authority to give Schlesinger’s version. In addition, unfortunate editing leaves Schlesinger stating that transatlantic telegraphy “met with failure” just two pages after he correctly notes that it in fact succeeded.

Yet we do end up understanding that batteries are important. In the last few pages, Schlesinger casts his gaze on current efforts to realize the battery's potential, hop-scotching through carbon nanotubes, genetically altered virus batteries, and bio-batteries using vodka, sugar or urine. The book ends on a hopeful note. Schlesinger writes, "Battery development is, at long last, catching up to related fields."

Steve LeVine covers foreign affairs and energy from Washington, D.C. He was chief foreign affairs writer for BusinessWeek. He previously was correspondent for Central Asia and the Caucasus for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times for 11 years. His first book, The Oil and the Glory, a history of the former Soviet Union through the lens of oil, was published in October 2007. Putin’s Labyrinth, his new book, profiles Russia through the lives and deaths of six Russians. The updated paperback was released in April 2009.

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