Though the numbers vary by region, regardless of where you’re reading this piece, there’s a 51.2% chance that you’re reading it from a mobile device. More than two-third of the world’s population is connected via mobile devices and, as of 2014, there are officially more mobile devices than people, with devices now numbering more than 8.7 billion. Obviously, we prefer to interact and connect using products that don’t require our being tethered to some plug/outlet, which makes today’s word increasingly more important.
From kitchen gadgets to toothbrushes to entertainment devices to phones, laptops, and bluetooth everything, many of the objects that we rely on daily run on batteries. But, what is a battery, and how did that word get attached with the little cylinders and long bars that we’re all familiar with?
Our term battery comes initially from the Old French baterie, meaning ‘beating or assault’, which itself derived from the Latin battuere. First used in 1531, in Thomas Elyot’s The Book of the Governor (“Intermeddling..Sometime..is violent, as battery [1557 battery], open murder.”), the initial meaning of the physical act of beating/wounding another person unlawfully and menacingly is still applied today in legal terms such as “assault and battery”, meaning the crime of threatening and then physically inflicting harm on a person.
Though siege engines and artillery were nothing new in the first half of the 16th century, the increasing commonness of gunpowder artillery certainly aided in the term being taken from a personal context and applied to forts and cities: historian Edward Hall mentions, in Hall’s Chronicle (1548), that: “The battery of the walls discourages us not.” Soon though (beginning in 1555), the word was used to represent not just the action on the wall/fortification itself, but the specific location(s) of the artillery pieces themselves. By 1590, the term was also being used to identify specific platforms or works where the artillery was mounted, with different structures hypothetically housing different pieces of artillery.
While we do know that the first use of the term battery in a sense of providing an electrical charge was in a letter written by Benjamin Franklin in 1748 and published in his 1751 work Experiments and Observations on Electricity, where he writes of his connected Leyden jars, stating: “An electrical battery, consisting of eleven panes of large sash-glass, arm’d with thin leaden plates.”, the inspiration for the use of the term ‘battery’ could potentially come from different aspects of previous definitions. For example, it has been suggested that the discharge of electricity is similar in a sense of discharging artillery; additionally, it could be argued that the similarity could also stem from the Leyden jars’ similarity to multiple artillery platforms (batteries) working together sequentially for a specific purpose.
From Franklin’s usage a half-century earlier, Cornish chemist Sir Humphrey Davy’s work in galvanism, published in The Royal Society’s Philosophical Transaction in 1801, which stated that: The third and most powerful class of Galvanic batteries..is formed, when metallic substances, oxidable in acids..are connected, as plates, with oxidating fluids” cemented the idea of our term being used to power the device that you likely just used to read this. Not bad for artillery.