Lewis F. Urry's Alkaline Batteries
AP Photo/Ron Kuntz
Alkaline Battery Celebrates 40th Birthday. First Batteries Were Made in 1959 by the Eveready Battery Division of Union Carbide
Extracts from an "Associated Press" article by Jim Salter
ST. LOUIS (25 August 1999) - It seems almost a footnote to the technological revolution. But like fiber-optic cable and the microchip, the world would be a much different place without the alkaline battery.
The Smithsonian Institution will recognize the 40th anniversary of the commercially viable alkaline battery today when it accepts the first prototypes for its National Museum of American History. Those first batteries were made in 1959 by the Eveready Battery division of Union Carbide. The battery was rebranded under the Energizer name in 1980, and the division was sold to St. Louis-based Ralston Purina in 1986.
Batteries have been around since before the turn of the century. But until the alkaline, commercial batteries could barely provide enough power for a dimly-lit flashlight, and then for only short periods of time. Eveready's alkaline battery opened the door to laptop computers and camcorders, pagers and cell phones, the Gameboy and the Walkman. ''It really sped up the technical revolution,'' sociologist Geoffrey Godbey of Pennsylvania State University said. The 1950s were a time of increasing household convenience - televisions, refrigerators, washers and dryers were becoming commonplace. But the advances were limited to items you could plug into the wall.
In 1955, Eveready moved researcher Lew Urry from an office in Toronto to its Cleveland plant and told him to come up with a better battery. Every battery has a positive electrode (a cathode) and a negative electrode (an anode). Both are placed in material (an electrolyte) that passes electrons between them. As electrons pass from the anode to the cathode, the battery generates electricity. But as the electrons pass from the negative electrode to the positive, the capacity is decreased and the cell eventually dies. At the time, the state of the art was the carbon zinc battery. Urry began looking at past failed experiments with alkaline, in which electrons pass from an anode made of zinc to a cathode made of manganese dioxide and carbon while immersed in an alkaline electrolyte. Urry experimented with different combinations of materials. He struck pay dirt when he used zinc in a loosely packed powder form. He also discarded the button-shape of the earlier alkaline batteries, going instead with a cylinder shape of commercial batteries already on the market. By the late '50s he'd honed what he thought was a pretty good alkaline battery, and was ready to try and persuade the company to put the battery on the market.
Using a mockup battery from an empty flashlight shaft, Urry put his prototype into a toy car, and a carbon zinc battery into an identical toy. He grabbed Eveready vice president of technology R.L. Glover and headed for the cafeteria at the Cleveland plant. ''Our car went several lengths of this long cafeteria,'' Urry, now 72, said. ''The other car barely moved. Everybody was coming out of their labs to watch. They were all oohing and ahhing and cheering.''
By the early '60s, the alkaline was changing the way we lived. If you wanted to listen to the radio, you could go for a walk with your transistor, rather than gathering with family around the living-room console. ''It provided a reliable source of portable energy,'' Godbey said.
The alkaline battery continues to improve. Energizer officials say today's battery lasts 40 times longer than the 1959 prototype. Each improvement creates enough power for new devices to come to the market, or allows for improvements to existing devices - compare today's laptop to the versions of five years ago, for example. ''These things are available because the technology of the battery is improving,'' said Mark Larsen, senior brand manager at Energizer. So battery sales keep rising, even though today's batteries last longer. Larsen said the typical U.S. household includes 18 devices that use batteries. Americans used an estimated four billion batteries in 1998. Double-A is the most popular cell - nearly half of all batteries sold, but the trend is toward smaller batteries.
Urry now mentors researchers who are developing smaller and still more powerful batteries. In the next few years, Energizer researchers predict, batteries the size of those found in watches will be used to power cell phones and radios we wear attached to our wrists.
For the more distant future, the company is exploring the use of micro-batteries that could be implanted under the skin to monitor body functions such as blood sugar levels and body temperature. ''We can still go a lot further,'' Urry said.
An extract from "skulenews" published by the University of Toronto
Battery inventor inducted into Smithsonian
A Faculty graduate whose long-lasting alkaline battery powers the Energizer bunny was inducted in August into the hall of fame of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Now 72, Lew Urry grew up in Pontypool, Ontario, and went to work for Eveready, then a division of Union Carbide, on Davenport Road in Toronto after obtaining his B.Sc. from the Faculty in 1950. Transferred to Eveready's laboratories in Cleveland, Urry developed an alkaline battery in 1955 using powdered zinc as an electrolyte.
"When you come up with an idea, you have to sell it to your bosses," he told The Globe and Mail. At a local toy store, Urry purchased two model cars that ran on D cells. He put a conventional carbon battery in one and his alkaline battery in the other, then called his boss to give him a demonstration. "The car with the ordinary carbon cell went a few feet and stopped," he said. The other car went back and forth for so long "people got bored with looking at it and went back to work."
Eveready evolved into Energizer, home of the bunny, and is now owned by Ralston Purina Co. of St. Louis. Urry's prototype of the alkaline D cell was installed in the National Museum of American History, in the same room as Thomas Edison's light bulb. "I can't talk about them just yet," said Urry, who holds 51 U.S. patents, including several on the lithium battery that powers cell phones and cameras, "but I think I still have some breakthroughs on the horizon."