The battery that has lasted nearly two centuries

With storage becoming the main issue in implementing a fully renewable energy supply we will take the time to look at the longest lasting battery in the world. It has been going for nearly two centuries and nobody is sure how long it will last or even what it is made of.


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The Clarendon physics laboratory in Oxford houses the Oxford Electric Bell which has been running for 176 years. It was acquired in 1840 and had been made in 1825 by Watkin and Hill. Initially it was thought to last for only a few more years but the power supply has been enough to keep the bell ringing until today. Considering the Oxford Electric Bell was made only 25 years after Volta had invented the first ever battery – the voltaic pile – it is amazing to see that it still works perfectly.

The solid sulphur coating of the battery keeps the moisture in the dry pile battery used to power the Oxford Electric Bell in. Apart from the outer coating though, we don’t really know what is inside it. A stack of about 2000 zinc and manganese dioxide discs is most likely, as this is what diagrams of batteries from the early 19th century show. However, only by cutting open and therefore breaking the battery could we find out exactly what it contains.

Even the makers of the bell did not expect it to go on ringing for longer than three or four years. These humble beginnings of power storage let us appreciate again the foundations laid centuries ago. However, we do have a long way to go before solving the current storage crisis.


Author: Joseph Thomas Roseveare


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