Friday, October 7, 2011

Baghdad Battery

During a 1936 excavation of an ancient village just outside of Baghdad, a unique piece of pottery was unearthed. A small vase contained some sort of rolled up metal sheet with another cylinder inside of that. Not sure of what to make of the find, archaeologists sent the piece to National Museum of Iraq. 2 years later, museum director Wilhelm König speculated that the piece may be the world’s oldest battery.

More of these pieces containing similar materials were found, and although no official tests have been run, they are all believed to be from the Parthian period, which spans from about 250 BC to 220 AD. König noticed heavy corrosion on the metal inside the vase and deduced that this was caused by some sort of citric acid, which acted as an electrolyte to generate current. After publishing his findings, scientists from around the world tried to unlock the mystery behind these so-called batteries.

Willard Gray, an engineer in Massachusetts, decided to attempt to make a replica of the batteries. After getting hold of some drawings and plans of the device made by German scientist Willy Ley, he successfully created a replica which generated half a volt of electricity. 30 years later, another German scientist tried his hand at the device. Arne Eggebrecht believed that grape juice was most likely used as the citric acid fuel; his model gave off almost 0.9 volts.

Unfortunately, this discovery doesn’t mean the ancient Persians had a way to electrically light their homes or power their clay Game Boys. The batteries were used for electroplating, transferring gold particles onto silver objects or some such witchcraft. There may be other uses for these devices and they might have been much more common that previously thought; the batteries for the large part still remain a mystery in the scientific community.

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