Dry Cell Battery

Dry cell batteries are the batteries the world is familiar with, the one’s that run portable electronics. Voltaic pile batteries, that preceded dry-cell batteries, required constant maintenance.


To contextualize this era, the telegraph was gaining widespread adoption. However, there was no power grid to run the telegraphs at this time. The first power plant, Edison’s Pearl Street Station, did not go online until September 1882. Electrification of the US, and the rest of the world took decades after that.

Therefore, telegraphs ran on batteries. During the US Civil War, there were entire wagon trains full of wet-cell Voltaic Pile batteries powering telegraphs. However, there were problems with Voltaic Piles. They were extremely heavy, required constant maintenance, and operated most efficiently with highly caustic sulfuric acid. Riding over dirt roads in wooden buggies filled with giant vats of sulfuric acid, especially in a warzone, was a lousy job.

Given the high utility of telegraphs, and their immense ability to generate wealth, scientists suddenly had a financial incentive to find better methods to generate electricity. One of these methods was the dry-cell battery, a disposable battery with no liquid inside. Dry cell batteries were lighter, safer, and vastly more efficient than Voltaic piles. It’s important to remember Volta’s batteries were a scientific experiment, not a commercial product.

Leclanché Cell Battery

In 1866, French engineer Georges Leclanché built a better battery to power telegraphs. It contained less caustic liquid and was enclosed; there was no need to continually add liquid. His battery was called the Leclanché cell, since batteries were individual cells rather than a large liquid vat. Leclanché batteries vastly reduced the cost of battery maintenance.

In 1885, German scientist Carl Gassner improved the Leclanché cell by figuring out how to remove all liquid, an entirely dry battery. Gassner is the patent holder of dry cell batteries in Europe and the US. Japanese businessman Sakizou Yai claims to have invented a better dry cell batter and certainly built a large company selling the batteries.

Battery (Voltaic Pile)

This was the first reliable and predictable source of electricity, a battery that generated its own power. It led to many future innovations. Most notable is the telegraph, that relied on voltaic piles as a power source. During the Civil War, wagons filled with giant batteries deployed to the front lines and powered telegraphs. Volta’s battery laid the groundwork for the Second Industrial Revolution much like Watt’s condensing steam engine had for the first.

In 1799, Volta created the “Voltaic pile,” the first battery that would hold a continuous and steady electrical charge. Although called a battery it chemically generated its own electricity. He also discovered methane.

There are many innovations related to electrification but Volta’s work is arguably the most important. Within weeks of his Voltaic battery, Nicholson and Carlisle discovered electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen.

During the US Civil War, 60 years later, enormous voltaic piles powered telegraphs. 

Volta’s batteries were plates of zinc and copper with an electrolyte; he used both diluted sulfuric acid and also saltwater brine.

Volta Chaired the University of Pavia for most of his career, focused on family life rather than material gain. He lived well as a distinguished academic but did not meaningfully profit from his innovations. The volt, a measure of electrical force, is named after Volta.