Mar 9, 2020
Most computers today have multiple batteries. Going way, way, back, most had a CMOS or BIOS battery used to run the clock and keep BIOS configurations when the computer was powered down. These have mostly centered around the CR2032 lithium button cell battery, also common in things like garage door openers and many of my kids toys!
Given the transition to laptops for a lot of people now that families, schools, and companies mostly deploy one computer per person, there’s a larger battery in a good percentage of machines made. Laptops mostly use lithium ion batteries, which
The oldest known batteries are “Baghdad batteries”, dating back to about 200BC. They could have been used for a number of things, like electroplating. But it would take 2,000 years to get back to it. As is often the case, things we knew as humans, once backed up with science, became much, much more. First, scientists were studying positive and negative elements and forming an understanding that electricity flowed between them. Like the English natural scientist, William Gilbert - who first established some of the basics of electricity and magnetism. And Sir Thomas Browne, who continued to refine theories and was the first to call it “electricity.” Then another British scientist, Peter Collinson, sent Franklin an electricity tube, which these previous experiments had begun to produce.
Benjamin Franklin spent some time writing back and forth with Collinson and flew a kite and proved that electrical currents flowed through a kite string and that a metal key was used to conduct that electricity. This proved that electricity was fluid. Linked capacitors came along in 1749. That was 1752 and Thomas-Francois Dalibard also proved the hypothesis using a large metal pole struck by lightning.
Budding scientists continued to study electricity and refine the theories. 1799, Alessandro Volta built a battery by alternating zinc, cloth soaked in brine, and silver and stacking them. This was known as a voltaic pile and would release a steady current. The batteries corroded fast but today we still refer to the resistance of an ohm when the current of an amp flows through it as a volt. Suddenly we were creating electricity from an electrochemical reaction.
People continued to experiment with batteries and electricity in general. Giuseppe Zamboni, another Italian, physicist invented the Zamboni pile in 1812. Here, he switched to zinc foil and manganese oxide. Completely unconnected, Swedish chemist Johann August Arfvedson discovered Lithium in 1817. Lithium. Atomic number 3. Lithium is an alkali metal found all over the world. It can be used to treat manic depression and bipolar disorder. And it powers todays modern smart-everything and Internet of thingsy world. But no one knew that yet.
The English chemist John Frederick Daniell invented the Daniell cell in 1836, building on the concept but using a copper plate in a copper sulfate solution in a plate and hanging a zinc plate in the jar or beaker. Each plate had a wire and the zinc plate would become a negative terminal, while the copper plate would be a positive terminal and suddenly we were able to reliably produce electricity.
Robert Anderson would build the first electric car using a battery at around the same time, but Gaston Plante would build the first rechargeable battery in 1859, which is very much resembles the ones in our cars today. He gave us the lead-acid battery, switching to lead oxide in sulfuric acid.
In the 1860s the Daniell cell would be improved by Callaud and a lot of different experiments continued on. The Gassner dry cell came from Germany in 1886, mixing ammonium chloride with plaster of Paris and adding zinc chloride. Shelf life shot up. The National Carbon Company would swap out the plaster of Paris with coiled cardboard. That Colombia Dry Cell would be commercially sold throughout the United States and National Carbon Company, which would become Eveready, who makes the Energizer batteries that power the weird bunny with the drum.
Swedish scientist Jungner would give us nickel-cadmium or NiCd in 1899, but they were a bit too leaky. So Thomas Edison would patent a new model in 1901, iterations of these are pretty much common through to today. Litum would start being used shortly after by GN Lewis but would not become standard until the 1970s when push button cells started to be put in cameras. Asahi Chemical out of Japan would then give us the Lithium Ion battery in 1985, brought to market by Sony in 1991, leading to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019.
Those lithium ion batteries are used in most computers and smart phones today. The Osborne 1 came in 1981. It was what we now look back on as luggable computer. A 25 pound computer that could be taken on the road. But you plugged it directly into the wall. But the Epson HX-20 would ship the same year, with a battery, opening the door to batteries powering computers.
Solar cells and other larger batteries require much larger amounts. This causes an exponential increase in demand and thus a jump in the price, making it more lucrative to mine.
Mining lithium to create these batteries is, as with all other large scale operations taken on by humans, destroying entire ecosystems, such as those in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and the Tibetan plateau. Each ton of lithium takes half a million gallons of water, another resource that’s becoming more precious. And the waste is usually filtered back into the ecosystem. Most other areas mine lithium out of rock using traditional methods, but there’s certainly still an environmental impact. There are similar impacts to mining Cobalt and Nickel, the other two metals used in most batteries.
So I think we’re glad we have batteries. Thank you to all these pioneers who brought us to the point that we have batteries in pretty much everything. And thank you, listeners, for sticking through to the end of this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re lucky to have you.