The Battery

Batteries are silent operators, puttering away unnoticed until they die. How many among us have hymned their praise -- the one that powered the defibrillator…maybe -- and how many of us have spoken oath-soaked ill of their dead? No contest. Not only are they silent, they are inscrutable. Really, what is a battery? Enter Henry Schlesinger, science journalist, who makes bell-clear and striking the inner life of those suspiciously hefty, suspiciously expensive little barrels. A battery, then, is an electrical storage device, wherein two dissimilar metals in an acidic or alkaline solution generate a charge through a chemical reaction that releases electrons. Now you know why not to cut one open with a hacksaw, even if electricity still eludes you, just like it did the early 19th-century battery makers. Back then, what electricity was good for -- other than as chemist's tool or entertainer's bit of wow -- was anyone's guess, but it wasn't a heavy-lifter like coal, which would fire the industrial revolution. Not until the telegraph would electricity enter the commercial big-time, and batteries would provide the juice.

 

The battery has gone through many figurations and the number of players in the drama has been legion, but Schlesinger keeps this historical narrative brisk, slowing only at critical junctures, and a keen distinction is drawn between inventors and entrepreneurs: "For better or worse, popular history belongs to the clever engineers who successfully apply scientific principles and not to the scientific explorers" -- listen up, Messrs. Edison, Morse, et al. Schlesinger gives the little-sung their due, describes the battery's arc from curio to indispensable, and mixes up the hard science with bright anecdotes, such as coffins equipped by battery-driven alarms for the prematurely interred, and the Electric Girl Light Company, from whom "party hosts could rent young ladies decorated with electric lights powered by small batteries." Schlesinger is of a mind with those who think "significant improvements in traditional battery technology may be coming to an end" with the lithium-ion variety -- its ease of recharge, low self-discharge, and happily congruent obsolescence: "Although they generally don't last beyond three years, neither do most of the products they power." (Electric car batteries are only ironically "portable," but their technology is at a standstill, Schlesinger reports, and in need of a well-funded push akin to that given the telegraph or NASA.) Still, look what the little battery has brought us: toy trains, telephones, transistor radios, computers. Schlesinger's tale attests to batteries having galvanized our culture, as surely as they have our gadgets.

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.