Inside the Collection

Old battery reveals its secrets

1920s Columbia Ignitor battery
Collection, Powerhouse Museum

Have you ever chopped up a battery to see what’s inside? I certainly did as a child (but please note this can be a dangerous activity). Years later I was delighted to find this carefully sectioned 1920s Columbia Ignitor on a shelf in the Powerhouse basement.

1920s Columbia Ignitor battery interior
Collection, Powerhouse Museum

I thoroughly enjoyed researching this wonderful didactic object. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I find its multiple shapes, layers, colours and textures visually pleasing. And it took me on an interesting journey into the worlds of chemistry, materials, invention (by Leclanché), commercialisation (by Gassner), brand names, iconography, technological history and the social impacts of technology.

We all know that technology transformed daily life in the twentieth century, and that batteries were crucial for the move to portable devices. Batteries themselves have been progressively reduced in size. At 160 mm tall, this one would be useless for powering an iPod or Xbox, but it was well suited as an ignition source for two transformative technologies: the motor car and the landline telephone.

1920s Columbia Ignitor battery interior
Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

These initial applications explain the name Ignitor, but what are the origins of Columbia and the National Carbon Company? I was surprised to learn that Columbia is a feminised version of Columbus – today this seems a strange way to commemorate such a man, but the name was coined in a more poetic, less prosaic, age.

On the other hand, I wasn’t surprised to discover that the National Carbon Company (later to become part of Eveready, which morphed into Energizer) started out as a supplier of carbon rods for arc lamps, the first form of electric lighting.

Note the fluted form of the carbon rod at the centre of the battery. Fluted carbon rods were first used to maintain constant timing of the light pulses produced by lighthouse arc lamps despite changes in current and voltage (which had to be increased to produce brighter light in poor weather). As this timing ‘signature’ is used by mariners to identify individual lighthouses, the introduction of the fluted rod was an important safety measure. In the battery, fluting serves to increase the surface area of the electron-collecting rod – that is, in comparison to a plain cylindrical rod such as the one in the battery I investigated as a youngster.

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