Ancient technology in electric batteries, thousands of years old, were discovered by German archaeologists in the 1930's near the old Arab city of Baghdad (Bagdad), in modern-day Iraq (Mesopotamia or ancient Babylonia).
“Electric batteries, 2000 years ago!!! Surprised? No need to be, really,” declared Willard F. M. Gray, an electrical engineer for General Electric. “There were some pretty smart metal workers in the ancient city of Baghdad, Persia [now Iraq]. They did a lot of fine work in steel, gold, and silver. You may wonder what this had to do with electric batteries. It seems that copper vases, some of whose ages go back 4000 years, were unearthed several years ago which had designs plated on them in gold or silver, even some were plated with antimony.”
In his editorial titled “A Shocking Discovery,” in a 1963 edition of the prestigious Journal of the Electrochemical Society, he also added: “Occasionally, we feel a bit smug about our tremendous advances in the nuclear science and the like, but when we are scooped by some ancient metal smiths we are most assuredly brought down to earth and humbled. It will ever be so.”[i]
One of the ancient electric cells (batteries) found by Konig near Baghdad
These so-called Baghdad batteries, discovered in the 1930’s, are now old news, and the evidence that the ancients used them to electroplate some of the artifacts stored in museums around the world is likewise common knowledge. Nevertheless, for readers who are not familiar with the discovery of these ancient electric cells, we will call on the German rocket scientist Willy Ley to update us. In a 1939 article in Astounding magazine, he wrote:
“Dr. Wilhelm Koenig of the Iraq Museum in Bagdad reported recently that a peculiar instrument was unearthed by an expedition of his museum in the summer of 1936. The find was made at Khujut Rabu’a, not far to the southeast of Bagdad. It consisted of a vase made of clay, about 14 centimeters high and with its largest diameter 8 centimeters. The circular opening at the top of the vase had a diameter of 33 millimeters. Inside of this vase a cylinder made of sheet copper of high purity was found—the cylinder being 10 centimeters high and having a diameter of about 26 millimeters, almost exactly 1 inch.
A Berkshire Museum photograph of Gray's replica of a Baghdad battery (cell)
“The lower end of the copper cylinder was covered with a piece of sheet copper, the same thickness and quality as the cylinder itself. The inner surface of this round copper sheet—the one that formed the inner bottom of the hollow cylinder—was covered with a layer of asphalt, 3 millimeters in thickness. A thick, heavy plug of the same material was forced into the upper end of the cylinder. The center of the plug was formed by a solid piece of iron—now 75 millimeters long and originally a centimeter or so in diameter. The upper part of the iron rod shows that it was at first round, and while the lower end has partly corroded away so that the rod is pointed now at the lower end, it might be safely assumed that in the beginning it was of uniform thickness.
“An assembly of this kind cannot very well have any other purpose than that of generating a weak electric current. If one remembers that it was found among undisturbed relics of the Parthian Kingdom—which existed from 250 B.C. to 224 A.D.—one naturally feels very reluctant to accept such an explanation, but there is really no alternative. The value of this discovery increases when one knows that four similar clay vases were found near Tel’Omar or Seleukia—three of them containing copper cylinders similar to the one found at Khujut Rabu’a. The Seleukia finds were, apparently, less well preserved—there are no iron rods in evidence any more. But close to those four vases pieces of thinner iron and copper rods were found which might be assumed to have been used as conductive wires.
“Similar ‘batteries’ were also found in the vicinity of Bagdad in the ruins of a somewhat younger period. An expedition headed by Professor Dr. E. Kühnel, who is now director of the Staatliches Museum in Berlin, discovered very similar vases with copper and iron parts, at Ktesiphon—not far from Bagdad. These finds date from the time when the dynasty of the Sassanides ruled Persia and the neighboring countries—224 A.D.—651 A.D.
“While the probable date of the invention is entirely open to conjecture, it seems likely that it was made in or near Bagdad, since all known finds were made in the vicinity of this city. It must be assumed, of course, that the subjects of the Sassanides had some use for them, and Dr. Koenig, the discoverer of the best preserved of all these vases, suggests that this use might still be in evidence in Bagdad itself. He found that the silversmiths of Bagdad use a primitive method of electroplating their wares. The origin of their method cannot be ascertained and seems to date back a number of years. Since galvanic batteries of the type found would generate a sufficiently powerful current for electrogilding small articles fashioned of silver, it might very well be that the origin of the method has to be sought in antiquity.”[ii]
A simple electric cell (left) and a process for electroplating a spoon (right)
Electrogilding or electroplating basically only requires rods or wire, a couple of simple electric cells (batteries) connected to a bath of common chemicals wherein the items to be electroplated are placed. However, beside the materials already mentioned, using glass, lead, zinc, and some types of electrolytes like caustic soda and sulfuric acid produce stronger types of non-rechargeable Bagdad-types of primary batteries—as well as powerful rechargeable storage or secondary batteries that could have been used for ancient electric lighting.
The ancients had access to all of these materials:
Bronze Age people made glass around 3,000 B.C., and the Egyptians manufactured glass beads about 2,500 B.C. Later, Alexandrians manufactured modern types of glass, during the Ptolemaic period—when the Pharos Lighthouse rose up.
Prehistoric man smelted Lead. One old piece of lead work in the British Museum dates back to 3,800 B.C. Several millennium later, Romans were using it at length in their cooking pots, tankards, and plumbing; and many probably poisoned their brains in the process. The resulting insanity may have eventually contributed to the fall of the empire.
With regards to ancient zinc, Rene Noorbergen, pointed out:
“In 1968, Dr. Koriun Megurtchian of the Soviet Union unearthed what is considered to be the oldest large-scale metallurgical factory in the world at Medzamor, in Soviet Armenia. Here, 4,500 years ago, an unknown prehistoric people worked with over 200 furnaces, producing an assortment of vases, knives, spearheads, rings, bracelets, etc. The Medzamor craftsmen wore mouth-filters and gloves while they labored and fashioned their wares of copper, lead, zinc, iron, gold, tin, manganese and fourteen kinds of bronze. The smelters also produced an assortment of metallic paints, ceramics and glass.”[iii]
In the course of the excavation of the Agora in Athens, a roll of sheet zinc, 98% pure, was supposedly found in a sealed deposit dating from the 3rd or 2nd century B.C. Fragments of a zinc coffin was reported to have fairly recently been discovered in Israel, which, judging by an artifact found nearby, dates back to 50 B.C.
Caustic soda and lye are synonymous. “Clothes were cleansed in antiquity,” according to Charles Singer, by “lye from natron or wood-ash,”[iv] so it was available for use as an electrolyte to activate powerful electric cells in antiquity.
Manmadesulfuric acid (sulphuric acid) has been around at least since the seventh century B.C., and natural sulfuric acid has been available to use as an electrolyte for countless years before then. An article in Harper’s New MonthlyMagazine, under the title of “Secretion of Sulfuric Acid by Mollusks,” points to where both modern and ancient man could have obtained natural sulfuric acid. This quaint publication, which often serves as an excellent source of rare historical information, related:
“The remarkable fact was announced some years ago that certain gastropod mollusca secrete free sulfuric acid; and this has since then been not infrequently observed in the case of the gigantic Dolium galea, which discharges from its proboscis a drop of liquid or saliva that produces a very sensible effervescence on chalk or marble. This secretion from different mollusca, carefully analyzed, showed a considerable percentage of free sulphuric acid, some of combined sulphuric acid, combined chlorohydric acid, with potassa, soda, magnesia, and other substances; the glands secreting the liquids constituting from 7 to 9 per cent of the total weight of the animal. With this acid secretion there is, at least in some species, an evolution of pure carbonic gas, one gland, weighing approximately about 700 grains, yielding 206 cubic centimeters. The genera so far known to furnish this secretion are Dolium, Cassis, Tritonium, Cassidaria, Pleurobranchidium, Pleurobranchus, and Doris. The precise object of this secretion is not entirely understood, although it is suggested that it is used in perforating the bivalve shells or other mollusca which serve as article of food.”[v]
However, the ancients probably did not need to rely on any natural source of sulfuric acid for the electrolyte in their batteries. They likely, as today, relied on their ingenuity to manufacture their own. 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, informs us that
“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-Assyriandictionaries 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 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.”[vi]
Now that we have established that the ancients also possessed all of these chemicals, including Sal Ammoniac and sulphuric acid, which are excellent battery-making materials, we need to look at least one example of a primary and second type of powerful battery that they could have easily produced to energize their ancient electric lights.
One example of a powerful primary battery that the ancients could have manufactured, using caustic soda or some equivalent, is the Lalande Battery. Felix Lalande and Georges Chaperon used a similar electrolyte to produce their primary battery in the nineteenth century, and it supplied enough current to power electric railroad lights for many days before it needed to be restored. Likewise, several large Lalande cells placed in series and parallel could have supplied enough voltage and current to power bright lights in antiquity for a long time before any of the battery’s elements would have needed replacing. This type of battery needs no external source of electricity to revitalize it. After it has discharged, replacing some of its internal ingredients restores the unit to full capacity. In an Encyclopaedia Britannica article published in 1929, G. W. Heise, a research chemist at the National Carbon Company of Cleveland, Ohio, and an author of numerous articles in technical journals, explained the “heavy-duty characteristics” of this primary battery—which would certainly qualify it for carbon arc light usage in the searchlight on the ancient Pharos Lighthouse. He maintained:
“The Lalande cell is one of the most efficient and satisfactory primary batteries known today for the special classes of service to which it is suited. It lends itself readily to rugged construction; it is relatively cheap to make and operate; it is very reliable in its action and has a high current output per unit of volume (about 1 ampere hour per 8 cc. of electrolyte). The cell is made in units as large as 500 to 1,000 ampere hour sizes. Because it requires no attention for long periods of time and because of its excellent continuous discharge and heavy-duty characteristics, the Lalande cell is at present much used in railway signal operation. It can be made in dry or non-spillable form either by gelatinizing the caustic soda solution with small quantities of starch or by using such expedients as making a paste out of electrolyte and magnesium oxide.
“Air cells of the Lalande type, in which a porous carbon accessible to air is substituted for the usual copper oxide element, are also feasible. These have an even more horizontal discharge curve than the copper oxide cell, since the potential of the cathode remains virtually unchanged during service life. The caustic soda air cell has an open circuit voltage of 1.35 to 1.45 and an operating voltage even on comparatively heavy drains above 1.0 volt—perhaps 0.4 to 0.5 volt higher than that of a standard copper oxide cell. The carbon electrode can be used repeatedly, only zinc and electrolyte requiring renewal each time the cell is completely discharged.”[vii]
A railroad signal light sending directions down the track, like the Pharos flashed it messages over the sea, certainly demanded their periodic renewal, but eventually a more practical and economical source of illuminating power, the lead-acid secondary storage battery took its place. This powerhouse is easy to build, by immersing two lead plates in a solution of sulfuric acid in a glass container, all of which the ancients possessed. However, before a simple storage cell will produce electric current, it needs charged. To initially energize it, you need only to connect it to a source of direct current, like a primary battery or thermocouple.
We already know the ancients manufactured primary cells, like the Baghdad batteries, that serve the purpose, but they could have easily used a thermo-electric generator, which is a simple device to make. They merely had to heat one of two dissimilar metallic conductors joined together, like copper and iron, to create a thermo-electric generator, which is also called a thermopile and thermo-electric stove.
The Gülcher Thermopile, being more convenient, less costly, and cleaner than primary batteries, was a popular means of charging storage batteries in the nineteenth century. It gave on a short circuit about 5 amperes of current at 4 volts. However, this thermo-electric generator hardly compared to the power output of the improved Clamond Thermopile of 1879, which produced 109 volts, with an internal resistance of 15.5 ohms. It could easily illuminate bright electric lights and also deliver a lethal dose of energy! In 1893, Dr. Giraud’s Thermo-electric stove, 3 feet high and 20 inches in diameter and fired by coal, not only could charge batteries but could also light several electric lamps, as well as heat a room 21 feet square. It was an expensive unit to build but cost would have been no obstacle for a wealthy ruler of any ancient city like Alexandria. The ancient Greek kings ruling that city may well have relied on similar types of thermopiles to charge powerful lead-acid batteries hooked to the arc light on the Pharos lighthouse, an essential element for shipping safety and the city’s commercial survival.
Lead-acid storage cells will produce a voltage of about 2 volts each, and the ancients could have easily connected several of them in series and parallel to create a powerful battery. Hooking its poles up to a couple of chunks of carbon from the remnants of a wood fire, touching the two together, and separating them a certain short distance will ignite a brilliant arc of light. That is child’s play. And it would not have taken long for them to realize that maintaining that distance will sustain a brilliant carbon arc light—the kind that would eventually be reflected from the huge mirror on the Pharos Lighthouse.
[i] “A Shocking Discovery,” Journal of the Electrochemical Society, September 1963, Vol. 110 No. 9
[ii] Under SCIENCE ARTICLES in the March 1939 issue of ASTOUNDING magazine, Willy Ley’s article was listed on the contents page as “ELECTRIC BATTERIES—2,000 YEARS AGO! SO YOU THOUGHT OUR CIVILIZATION FIRST DISCOVERED ELECTRICITY?"
[iii]Secrets of the Lost Races, New Discoveries of Advanced Technology in Ancient Civilizations, New York 1977
[iv]A History of Technology, Volume II, London 1956
[v]Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, No. CCXLVI, November 1870, Volume XLI
[vi] “A Survey of the Chemistry of Assyria in the Seventh Century B.C.,” Ambix, Vol. II, No. 1, June 1938
[vii]Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14th Edition, Article: “Battery—Lalande Cell,” London 1929
The Electric Mirror contains much more on ancient electricity, ancient batteries, ancient carbon arc lights, and much more.