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Ancient Technology in Electro-Chemistry

 

 

Ancient electro-chemical technology easily produced and still used today

 

The ancient electric Bagdad batteries discovered in the 1930's certainly prove that battery technology existed in the primary form in antiquity.  Furthermore, it would have been a simple challenge for the ancients to make secondary electric cells since they were no dumber than we are today and the necessary chemicals were readily available.  Anyone can make a simple storage cell, somewhat comparable to one of those cells in your car battery, by immersing two lead plates in a solution of sulfuric acid.  However, it will not produce an electric current until it is charged.  To initially charge it, you need only to connect it to a source of direct current, like the simple primary bottle cells or thermocouples illustrated above.  In antiquity, several could have been connected in series to increase a battery's voltage or parallel to increase its current capacity.  With the appropriate arrangement, they would have provided enough power to sustain a simple carbon arc light employed in a temple, tomb, or lighthouse.

 

 

An illustration of an ancient carbon arc light fed by batteries, a

 woodcut from A. Cazin's 1876 edition of L'Etincelle Electrique (The Electric Spark)

 

Only three essential ingredients are needed to manufacture such a battery: glass, lead, and a solution of sulfuric acid and all three of these materials were readily available and used in antiquity.

 

Crude man-made glass has been around since at least 3,000 B.C., during the Bronze Age, and more sophisticated Egyptian glass beads date back to about 2,500 B.C.  Later, Alexandrians manufactured our modern type of glass, during the Ptolemaic period—when the Pharos Lighthouse was built.

 

Lead has been around since prehistoric times.  The oldest piece of lead work known, in the British Museum, dates back to 3,800 B.C.  It was used extensively in ancient Rome, in cooking pots, tankards, and plumbing; and lead poisoning, which can cause brain damage, is believed to have caused the poisoning of the general population and to have contributed to the fall of the empire.

 

 

Man-made sulfuric acid (also spelled sulphuric acid) has apparently been around since the seventh century B.C., and natural sulfuric acid has been available for electrolytic employment in ancient batteries for countless years before then.  Speaking of the ancient Assyrians (of Iraq) and the chemicals they produced by 650 B.C., in a paper read before the Society for the Study of Alchemy and Early Chemistry, Doctor Reginald Campbell Thompson, the author of A Dictionary of Assyrian Chemistry and Geology, wrote:

 

 

"The sources from which our knowledge of Assyrian Chemistry is obtained are a very small part of the collections of cuneiform tablets in our museums, which may perhaps be reckoned at a quarter of a million roughly in number, and of this chemistry almost all our knowledge comes from tablets of the Seventh Century B.C. But that the ancient Sumerians had a very practical knowledge of chemical methods even before the invention of writing, let us say, very early in the Fourth Millennium B.C., is to be inferred from the beautiful gold work found by Sir Leonard Wooley at Ur, and the copper and bronze castings found throughout Southern Mesopotamia.  The written word, however, of their methods has survived only sparsely by comparison, this being due to three causes:  first, the illiteracy of the craftsmen; secondly, the habit of all Guilds to conceal their methods by the use of cryptic expressions; and thirdly, the close guarding of secrets, which were frequently handed down from father to son by word of mouth.

 

"In the Seventeenth Century B.C. we have a text of outstanding importance for the history of Chemistry in a tablet written by a glass-maker.  Later on, in the Seventh Century, we have a collection of glass recipes made at the instance of King Ashurbanipal (668—626 B.C.).  More generally we have a large collection of medical texts which allow us to identify numerous substances in use during the First Millennium B.C.  Finally I must mention numerous Sumero-Assyrian[1] dictionaries which give lists of chemical words, also dating from the same period.

 

"By 650 B.C. the list of chemicals may be said to include Common Salt, Sal gemma, red Sal Gemma, Lime, Saltpeter from the earth, Carbonate of Soda from the walls, Nitrate of Potash from walls, Sal Ammoniac [used in the Lalande Cell], Alkali from plants, Gypsum, Mercury from cinnabar, Alum, Black and Yellow Sulphur, Bitumen, various forms of Arsenic, red and black Copper Oxide, Chrysocolla, Haematite, Magnetic Iron Ore, Iron Pyrites (which leads to Vitriols), Iron Sulphide, Copper Sulphate; and if I am right, they had a word hannabahru for the fuming sulphuric acid from Green Vitriol."[2]



 

[1] Keep in mind that the ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, and Sumero-Assyrians all prospered on the same soil that supports modern Iraq—the same place the ancient batteries were discovered.

 

[2]A Survey of the Chemistry of Assyria in the Seventh Century B.C., from AMBIX, Vol. II, No. 1, June 1938.   Thompson goes on in this paper to provide his chemical translations and proofs for this ancient electro-chemical technology.


 

ReadThe Electric Mirror on the Pharos Lighthouse and Other Ancient Lighting, which describes the ancient Bagdad batteries and other ancient electrical subjects in more detail.

 

 


 

 

 


 





 

This page was last modified on Friday, November 25, 2016