What are you wishing for this holiday season? Peace on Earth, of course. Perhaps a family reunion that avoids opening old wounds and inflicting new ones. Or the Porsche you wrote Santa about. And maybe you're crazy enough to be wishing for more snow, this time just a light dusting to soften the sharp edges of modern life. But along with these wishes, save one for the commodity you'll probably need more of this season than anything else:
Once, in those halcyon days before World War II, practically nothing depended on batteries. There were storage batteries in cars, but, as now, they only provided the spark to jolt the engine into life -- they didn't actually power the vehicles. Yet these days it seems virtually everything we use requires AA, D or C cells (cells is the correct term; a battery is a set of cells hooked together), low-voltage sources we use until they die and then discard.
Most of us remember when this wasn't so. Back in the early '60s, we generally bought cells for flashlights, portable radios, hearing aids, toys and electronic watches (if we could afford the luxury of what were then newfangled timepieces). The space race changed all that almost overnight, forcing electronics researchers to push transistor applications to new frontiers and to leap into a world of microcircuits and eventually sub-microcircuitry.
By the mid-'70s, the Japanese had overpowered consumer electronics, making things smaller and cheaper and then -- with the proliferation of microchips -- smaller again as they introduced personal-size tape players and tons of cheap, beeping digital watches. And toys. Toys that rocketed out of Saturday morning cartoon commercials, seducing our children and blasting our checkbooks. Toys our kids said they would curl up and die without: belching ray guns, scuttling monsters, whirring and winking robots. These were programmable whatchamacallits with mini-control panels and goggle-eyes whose raison d'e~tre was to roll across the living room, bump into the wall and then change direction so they could bump into the opposite wall.
All of these wondrous inventions -- the kids' life-support toys (which delighted them for at least 20 minutes) and our grown-up gadgets -- gobble up power cells, a consumer assault with batteries. But then, imagine life without this celebration of technogoodies.
Could we survive without walkabout stereos, automatic cameras, pagers, calculators, remote-control devices, portable compact disc players, memory phones, garage-door openers or a dozen other products? Of course not. So, power junkies that we are -- Americans own a billion battery-powered portable devices -- we're condemned to endlessly hunt for that electrochemical connection, wandering back and forth to stores, perpetually buying power cells to feed our current habits.
Say thanks for this privilege to Alessandro Volta, professor of natural philosophy at Italy's University of Pavia, who wrote on March 20, 1800, that he'd built "an apparatus . . . of unfailing charge, of perpetual power." Volta had taken disks of silver and zinc and stacked them up like poker chips, separating each pair with an absorbent wafer soaked in an alkaline solution. Metal tabs attached to each end of the conglomerate curved down into cups of mercury. Volta's "pile," made of dozens of silver-zinc cells, was a true battery -- the first known chemical reaction device producing a strong, steady source of electricity.
Inspired by Volta's triumph, other scientists constructed even larger batteries. In 1813, Sir Humphrey Davy built one made of 2,000 cells, a huge galvanic pile with a surface area of 889 square feet. (Davy was obviously the guy to see in those days if you needed a jump start.) And England's brilliant Michael Faraday used voltaic piles to investigate the relationship of magnetism and electricity, research that eventually led to his development of the electromagnet and, in 1831, the dynamo -- the heart of all modern power plants.
By the 1860s, George Leclanche of France had built a "wet" cell, an inexpensive if messy source of electricity with a relatively long shelf life. Improvements led, about 20 years later, to the "dry" cell (which used a chemical paste instead of a liquid), the forerunner of today's standard zinc carbon cell. This reliable source of portable power helped spur the development of Morse's telegraph, Bell's phone system, and -- in 1898 -- an American invention known as the flashlight. Two million power cells were sold in 1900 compared with today's global sales of 15 billion to 20 billion cells per year.
Yet one of the most important contributions to power-cell technology didn't come until the start of World War II. Samuel Ruben, a self-taught American inventor (associated with what is now Duracell International), developed the mercury cell, desperately needed by the military for its longer life and greater reliability. After the war, Ruben revolutionized the battery industry (and our lives) by inventing the alkaline manganese system, the granddaddy of today's superior alkaline cells.
But the best is yet to come, say researchers, as we enter a revolutionary phase of electrochemistry. Look to the future, for example, for a new generation of lightweight lithium batteries with power to spare and an almost unlimited shelf life. Until then, here are some tips to get through this holiday season without being excessively batteried about:
Freshness counts more than brand names. Buy the cheapest alkalines from a store with a high sales turnover.
Don't substitute standard or heavy- duty cells for alkalines (you may damage the device they're in) or mix different cell types or old and new cells together.
Rechargeables may not be worth the extra cost. Typically holding less than their rated 1.5 volts, they lose power rapidly, don't store it well and must be fully discharged before each 12- to 16-hour recharging. (Their chemical "memory" won't let them take a full charge unless they're dead.) Standard cells may burst if recharged.
Don't keep cells in an unused device (they may leak). When you change cells, clean the contacts in the device (the metal tabs that hold the cells in place) by rubbing with a pencil eraser.
Keep all cells -- particularly button or wafer cells -- away from small children. Kids have been killed or injured by swallowing them.
Alkalines are your best buy. They cost more than heavy-duty or zinc carbon cells, but they last as much as 10 times longer, endure temperature extremes best and have the longest shelf life. :: CORRECTION The Nov. 15 column gave incorrect advice for cleaning records. The cleaning solution should be a mixture of 4 parts distilled water and 1 part pure isopropyl alcohol, used only with a record vacuum.