An Electrifying Discovery: Early Batteries on MSU’s Campus
While archaeologists are great at identifying artifacts that we recover, we occasionally find objects that are a mystery. Even on campus, we sometimes find intriguing objects in our excavations that take some investigative work to identify. One group of objects that has piqued our interest were a number of small black cylinders recovered during the 2015 CAP field school at the late 19th-early 20th century Gunson site. Ambiguous enough to make finding a function difficult, the current Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright suggested that they might have originally served as carbon rods within batteries. After doing some research, she appears to be right!
Carbon rods are found in the center of zinc-carbon batteries, today’s basic household battery. In general, these batteries produce energy through chemical reactions that take place between their component parts. As these reactions release energy, the centrally placed carbon rod functions as a positive electrode, helping to funnel the released energy into whatever device the battery is powering (Frood 2003; Schumm 2011). These batteries can come in both flat or cylindrical forms, and can be stacked together to generate even larger electric potential (Schumm 2011). Based on the shape and the length of the carbon rods recovered by CAP, it is likely that they originated from within cylinder batteries.
If, like me, you tend to image the late 18th-early 19th century as battery free, they actually have a much deeper history than many realize. The first batteries that we know of were actually created centuries ago, sometime between 200 B.C. or A.D. 600. Known as “Baghdad Batteries,” these devices, constructed from metal and liquid components placed in clay jars, were capable of producing a small electric charge, but it is unknown how they would have been used (Frood 2003). Much later, in 1866, the same concepts were used by Georges-Lionel LeClanche to invent the LeClanche wet cell battery. Housed in a glass mason jar, this early battery was used to power important technologies like telegraph machines and railroad signals. In 1888, Carl Gassner improved this model and created the first dry cell battery, which used a solid medium instead of a liquid one. This improvement made these batteries spill-proof, and are the ancestor of all of our modern batteries today (Schumm 2011). Both wet and dry cell batteries utilized carbon rods to help channel the battery’s energy, but based on the dates from the Gunson site (late 19th-early 20th century), these rods would have been from dry cell batteries.
Batteries may have had numerous roles on campus. Starting in the 1890s, MSU officials were working on initiatives to power many parts of campus through the use of electricity (Meeting Minutes of Offices of Board of Trustees and President 1892, 1894, 1898). A few departments also requested and received funding to purchase electrical equipment for power sources and experiments. For example, in 1890 and 1895, the College approved the purchase of a mysterious “electric apparatus” for two different professors (Meeting Minutes of Offices of the Board of Trustees and President 1890, 1895). In 1898, they also approved the purchase of an electrical motor to power the equipment within the mechanical shops (Meeting Minutes of Offices of the Board of Trustees and President 1898). Batteries are also occasionally mentioned, as in 1904, when a large storage battery (think like a large car battery) was purchased and installed for the Department of Physics and Electrical Engineering (M.A.C. Record, Dec. 13th, 1904). Batteries also may have been used to power technologies mentioned earlier, such as communication equipment.
It is hard to know how Gunson, a horticulturalist by trade, would have used these batteries. While it is likely that he and his family may have used them within their home for some purpose, another clue is found in an 1896 edition of the M.A.C. Record. Within, there is a small discussion of an experiment conducted by a few men in Chicago, who used electricity produced by an electric engine and then storage batteries attached to a cart to kill weeds along a railroad line (M.A.C, Record, Oct. 20th, 1896). While the validity of such experiments is called into question by this article, it shows that people in many scientific fields were experimenting with electricity during this time, even horticulturalists and botanists. As such, some of the batteries we have recovered may have served household functions, but others may have been used in experiments conducted in Gunson’s greenhouse or around the campus grounds.
2003 “Riddle of ‘Baghdad Batteries.’” BBC News website. Accessed Feb. 7th, 2018.
MSU Archives and Historical Collections
1896 M.A.C. Record, October 20th, 1896.
1904 M.A.C. Record, December 13th, 1904.
1890 Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.
1892 Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.
1894 Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.
1895 Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.
1898 Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.
Schumm, Brooke Jr.
2011 Zin-Carbon Batteries. In Linden’s Handbook of Batteries, edited by Thomas B. Reddy and David Linden. McGraw Hill, Columbus OH.