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IT is more than a hundred years since the elementary principle of the storage battery or "accumulator" was detected by a Frenchman named Gautherot; it is just fifty years since another Frenchman, named Plante, discovered that on taking two thin plates of sheet lead, immersing them in dilute sulphuric acid, and passing an electric current through the cell, the combination exhibited the ability to give back part of the original charging current, owing to the chemical changes and reactions set up. Plante coiled up his sheets into a very handy cell like a little roll of carpet or pastry; but the trouble was that the battery took a long time to "form." One sheet becoming coated with lead peroxide and the other with finely divided or spongy metallic lead, they would receive current, and then, even after a long period of inaction, furnish or return an electromotive force of from 1.85 to 2.2 volts. This ability to store up electrical energy produced by dynamos in hours otherwise idle, whether driven by steam, wind, or water, was a distinct advance in the art; but the sensational step was taken about 1880, when Faure in France and Brush in America broke away from the slow and weary process of "form- ing" the plates, and hit on clever methods of furnishing them "ready made," so to speak, by dabbing red lead onto lead-grid plates, just as butter is spread on a slice of home-made bread. This brought the storage battery at once into use as a practical, manufactured piece of apparatus; and the world was captivated with the idea. The great English scientist, Sir William Thomson, went wild with enthusiasm when a Faure "box of electricity" was brought over from Paris to him in 1881 containing a million foot-pounds of stored energy. His biographer, Dr. Sylvanus P. Thompson, describes him as lying ill in bed with a wounded leg, and watching results with an incandescent lamp fastened to his bed curtain by a safety-pin, and lit up by current from the little Faure cell. Said Sir William: "It is going to be a most valuable, practical affair--as valuable as water-cisterns to people whether they had or had not systems of water- pipes and water-supply." Indeed, in one outburst of panegyric the shrewd physicist remarked that he saw in it "a realization of the most ardently and increasingly felt scientific aspiration of his life--an aspiration which he hardly dared to expect or to see realized." A little later, however, Sir William, always cautious and canny, began to discover the inherent defects of the primitive battery, as to disintegration, inefficiency, costliness, etc., and though offered tempting inducements, declined to lend his name to its financial introduction. Nevertheless, he accepted the principle as valuable, and put the battery to actual use.
For many years after this episode, the modern lead- lead type of battery thus brought forward with so great a flourish of trumpets had a hard time of it. Edison's attitude toward it, even as a useful supplement to his lighting system, was always one of scepticism, and he remarked contemptuously that the best storage battery he knew was a ton of coal. The financial fortunes of the battery, on both sides of the Atlantic, were as varied and as disastrous as its industrial; but it did at last emerge, and "made good." By 1905, the production of lead-lead storage batteries in the United States alone had reached a value for the year of nearly $3,000,000, and it has increased greatly since that time. The storage battery is now regarded as an important and indispensable adjunct in nearly all modern electric-lighting and electric- railway systems of any magnitude; and in 1909, in spite of its weight, it had found adoption in over ten thousand automobiles of the truck, delivery wagon, pleasure carriage, and runabout types in America.
Edison watched closely all this earlier development for about fifteen years, not changing his mind as to what he regarded as the incurable defects of the lead- lead type, but coming gradually to the conclusion that if a storage battery of some other and better type could be brought forward, it would fulfil all the early hopes, however extravagant, of such men as Kelvin (Sir William Thomson), and would become as necessary and as universal as the incandescent lamp or the electric motor. The beginning of the present century found him at his point of new departure.
Generally speaking, non-technical and uninitiated persons have a tendency to regard an invention as being more or less the ultimate result of some happy inspiration. And, indeed, there is no doubt that such may be the fact in some instances; but in most cases the inventor has intentionally set out to accomplish a definite and desired result--mostly through the application of the known laws of the art in which he happens to be working. It is rarely, however, that a man will start out deliberately, as Edison did, to evolve a radically new type of such an intricate device as the storage battery, with only a meagre clew and a vague starting-point.
In view of the successful outcome of the problem which, in 1900, he undertook to solve, it will be interesting to review his mental attitude at that period. It has already been noted at the end of a previous chapter that on closing the magnetic iron-ore concentrating plant at Edison, New Jersey, he resolved to work on a new type of storage battery. It was about this time that, in the course of a conversation with Mr. R. H. Beach, then of the street-railway department of the General Electric Company, he said: "Beach, I don't think Nature would be so unkind as to withhold the secret of a GOOD storage battery if a real earnest hunt for it is made. I'm going to hunt."
Frequently Edison has been asked what he considers the secret of achievement. To this query he has invariably replied: "Hard work, based on hard thinking." The laboratory records bear the fullest witness that he has consistently followed out this prescription to the utmost. The perfection of all his great inventions has been signalized by patient, persistent, and incessant effort which, recognizing noth- ing short of success, has resulted in the ultimate accomplishment of his ideas. Optimistic and hopeful to a high degree, Edison has the happy faculty of beginning the day as open-minded as a child--yesterday's disappointments and failures discarded and discounted by the alluring possibilities of to-morrow.
Of all his inventions, it is doubtful whether any one of them has called forth more original thought, work, perseverance, ingenuity, and monumental patience than the one we are now dealing with. One of his associates who has been through the many years of the storage-battery drudgery with him said: "If Edison's experiments, investigations, and work on this storage battery were all that he had ever done, I should say that he was not only a notable inventor, but also a great man. It is almost impossible to appreciate the enormous difficulties that have been overcome."
From a beginning which was made practically in the dark, it was not until he had completed more than ten thousand experiments that he obtained any positive preliminary results whatever. Through all this vast amount of research there had been no previous signs of the electrical action he was looking for. These experiments had extended over many months of constant work by day and night, but there was no breakdown of Edison's faith in ultimate success-- no diminution of his sanguine and confident expectations. The failure of an experiment simply meant to him that he had found something else that would not work, thus bringing the possible goal a little nearer by a process of painstaking elimination.
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Edison, His Life and Inventions -by- F. L. Dyer and T. C. Martin