Skip to main content

The National MagLab is funded by the National Science Foundation and the State of Florida.

Edison Battery – 1903

Although it never quite measured up to expectations, the Edison battery paved the way for the modern alkaline battery.

Edison Battery – 1903

Since fossil fuels are finite, many automotive experts predict that in a matter of years most cars will run on batteries. If that is the case, it won't be the first time electric cars have ruled the road.

When the automobile was introduced late in the 19th century, the gasoline-powered version was the least popular due to its unreliability. Electric cars outsold their internal combustion counterparts as motorists thought these vehicles presented fewer problems.

Nonetheless, electric-powered cars also had a significant shortcoming in that the lead-acid batteries of the day were very heavy, and the acid corroded the car's interior, sharply limiting longevity. The scientific community was challenged to develop a powerful, reliable, effective and long-lasting automotive battery.

Thomas Edison was one of the first scientists to take on the challenge. An automobile lover, the renowned inventor knew dramatic improvements to conventional lead-acid batteries were needed. Of all his hundreds of inventions from the incandescent light bulb to the phonograph, the project to develop a battery proved to be his most difficult undertaking.

Edison decided the new battery would have to weigh less, be more dependable, and be up to three times more powerful than any existing battery. In typical fashion, Edison and his staff conducted thousands of tests on a wide variety of metals and other substances, trying to find the right combination for an effective battery. Four years later, in 1903, he announced his work was done. The finished product contained potassium hydroxide as an electrolyte, along with iron and nickel electrodes, which Edison claimed made it dependable as well as rechargeable, an important consideration for an automobile battery.

With substantial fanfare, Edison announced the new battery and made audacious claims about its capabilities. Manufacturers and owners of electric vehicles began purchasing them in droves. However, the batteries turned out to have familiar shortcomings. Leakage was common, and the nickel-graphite conductors failed to function properly. Furthermore, the batteries had trouble retaining a charge. Tests by engineers showed that while lighter than the old lead-acid batteries, the alkaline battery did not represent an improvement.

Edison shut down the factory and over the next three years completely redesigned the battery, using more costly materials. The higher quality paid off as the new product had higher performance and greater power. By 1910, the battery began mass production at a factory in New Jersey, but quickly became a victim of the changing times. Just a year earlier, Henry Ford introduced the inexpensive Model T car, which made the internal combustion engine the automotive norm.

The principal remaining outlet for the batteries was that of small electric-powered vehicles used in urban areas for deliveries. Even in this case, however, the Edison battery was not as strong as many of the other batteries on the market. Its outstanding characteristic was its reliability, which made it useful in other areas such as mining lamps, train lighting, and submarines.

Although it failed to live up to automotive expectations, the Edison battery paved the way for the modern alkaline battery and eventually became the most profitable product of the great inventor.