Nobody wants to be a clockwatcher

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28 January 2015 | 0

BillyBlogThere’s a fascinating story on Motherboard about a battery that has lasted since 1840 and still hasn’t run out. Situated in the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford University, the battery powers the clapper that has rung the Oxford Electric Bell for 175 years.

Here’s the funny part. No one knows exactly what the battery is made of, although they are reasonably certain it’s a dry pile battery. Invented by Guiseppe Zamboni, an Italisn Roman Catholic priest and physicist in 1812, dry pile batteries consist of paper discs coated with zinc foil on one side and manganese dioxide on the other. The moisture of the paper serves as a conductor.

The thing is they are in a Catch-22 situation because they can’t find out for sure what the battery is made of unless they remove it but they don’t want to do that because if they do it would ruin their experiment to try and find out how long the battery can last.

Motherboard writer Jason Koebler reveals that the bell can’t be heard any more – the voltage in the battery is so low the human ear can’t hear the ringing. He quotes from a 1984 paper by former Clarendon Laboratory researcher AJ Croft for the European Journal of Physics that speculated the clapper could wear out before the battery runs out.

You have to admit that’s pretty amazing (if you want to see a video of the Oxford Electric Bell, there’s one on YouTube). I’m sure quite a few of you reading about the battery were probably thinking how great it would be if we could invent a similar type of battery for smartphones, tablets and laptops. It wouldn’t have to run without charging for 175 years. A week would be good enough for most of us.

Still, I suppose that’s probably asking too much. After all, it’s not as if we’re living in the 1800s when people could invent that kind of thing.

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