Frenchman Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid rechargeable battery. In the early years, his battery lacked commercial value. Planté’s battery stored electricity and recharged easily but tended to release the electric in enormous bursts that, at the time, offered limited utility value.
Before the Planté battery was the Voltaic Pile and later derivatives. These were common but produced only small amounts of electricity, typically just over one volt.
The Planté battery used two sheets of lead separated by rubber strips immersed in a solution of 10 percent sulfuric acid. His battery delivered two volts, double the then state-of-the-art. Interestingly, this is not altogether different than the materials used in modern car batteries 150 years later though modern batteries typically deliver 12 volts.
By the early 1800s, his battery was used to power electric cars. At the time, and until the 20th century, electric cars were more common and considered more desirable than noisy, dirty liquid fuel-powered cars. Women especially preferred electric cars and virtually all New York City taxis, until the early 20th century, were electric On New Year’s Eve, 1899, the majority of cars in the world were electric and ran on Planté’s battery, or a derivation thereof. One problem with the Planté battery is the charge wouldn’t last long which, combined with fierce lobbying, eventually led to the rise of the internal combustion engine.
Internal combustion engines overtook electric cars but Planté’s battery eventually proved useful with the invention of car starting motors. Before electric car starters, people used a hand-crank to start their car. However, under certain circumstances, the crank could thrust backward hurting or even killing the car owner.
The battery, filled with lead, is heavy and toxic. However, it delivers a strong charge. The design has not changed significantly in today’s car starter batteries.
Planté was a professor of physics at the Polytechnic Association for the Development of Popular Instruction. His work was solely academic for five years before he started to develop his battery.