Ben Franklin Gets a Charge Out of an Invention and Coins a Phrase

My poor battered brain must have been suffering from CDS (caffeine deficiency slump). In pondering the origins of the word “battery,” I short-circuited the discussion, completely skipping over the electric battery. So what does a cell that stores chemical energy and converts it into electrical energy have to do with beating and battering?

I needed a jolt myself so I tottered up to the counter. I almost didn’t recognize the barista. The magenta hair had turned the green of oxidized copper and now stood up in spikes like the crown on the Statue of Liberty. I ordered another cup of Joe and he (or was it she?) slipped it to me silently.

Back in my office I thought about how the meaning of battery extended from ‘the apparatus used in battering or beating’ to ‘a number of pieces of artillery arrayed for combined action.’
256px-Benjamin_Franklin_1767From there it came to mean ‘a combination of simple instruments, usually to produce a compound instrument of increased power.’  Benjamin Franklin was the first to use the word in that sense when in 1748 he described a line of Leyden jars (early capacitors): “[W]e made what we called an electrical battery, consisting of eleven panes of large sash-glass, armed with thin leaden plates…” Like a battery of cannons, the Leyden jars discharged simultaneously.

leydenjarsapsharholdt-lgIn  1792 Alessandro Volta invented the first electrochemical cell and in 1800 he combined a “pile” of cells into a battery. Technically a battery is a collection of electrochemical cells, but popularly we call a single cell a battery too. Spanish, French and Italian use cognates of battery (batería in Spanish, batteria in Italian, batterie in French) for the electric cell, but they also use words meaning ‘pile’ (pila, pile) for the same thing.

Batería and batterie also mean ‘drum kit,’ which is both a combination of instruments forming a compound instrument of increased power and something that gets battered.


This entry was posted in English language, etymology, French language, Italian language, Spanish language and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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