| July/August 2000

PO Box 247 Dushore, Pennsylvania 18614-0247

Around the time of the Civil War the lead acid battery was invented and was used primarily to power telegraph sounders. During World War I, batteries of huge proportions were used to power submarines. The basic chemistry of the lead acid battery hasn't changed much since its invention.

The invention of the 'self-starter' for cranking automobile engines brought about a demand for portable, high output batteries that could be mass produced at an affordable cost. Most of the batteries used for stationary applications were contained in glass jars. As glass was not practical for mobile installations, a suitable substitute had to be found. Certain species of wood was resistant to the action of acid and a material called hard rubber was introduced as the principal material for constructing the vessel that contained the battery.

An inherent characteristic of a lead acid battery is that each cell generates two volts and as six were needed volts, to produce the proper amount of current, the battery case had to contain three compartments. Some of the hard rubber containers were encased in a wood box that would provide some protection against vibration and would allow clamps to hold the battery securely to the auto.

From the time that batteries were first used in a practical manner and continuing up into the nineteen twenties, batteries were so constructed that they could be rebuilt. Most communities had a battery shop and there were specialists who plied their trade rebuilding and selling batteries.

My first acquaintance with a battery shop was located on the second floor of a building next to my father's furniture store. What circumstances would prompt a person to have a battery shop on a second floor, defies reason. Nevertheless the shop was there and the proprietor was named Lew.

When a battery was brought in for repair, it was generally tested for specific gravity and each cell was tested for voltage and amperage. If one cell was at fault it was repaired and the battery put in service. If the entire battery was defective it would be completely rebuilt and, for all practical purposes, it would be as good as new.

The acid was contained in large glass jugs and had to be handled with extreme caution. Rubber aprons and rubber gloves were the working attire. Wool seemed to be acid resistant, but a drop of acid on cotton meant an immediate hole. After the lead connectors had been molded in place and the battery sealed, it was placed on rack for charging.

The advent of more stable materials for use in the construction of a battery and the general improvement in the battery itself soon put an end to the battery shop as it was once known. I wonder if the next time you turn the key on in your new car and the engine springs to life, that the basic ingredients in the battery under the hood are the same as Lew used to fix batteries in the twenties.


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