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Electricity in the Ancient World

August 18, 2011

Electricity in the ancient world? The idea that generating electricity is a relatively recent invention is taken for granted almost as much as our modern society’s total dependence on it. While lightning, magnetism and static electricity were known in the ancient world, they were not utilized in any way nor was it understood that the phenomena were related. They were curiosities, interesting anomalies to ponder over, sometimes destructive, but not useful.

Yet, we have evidence that in the 1st century AD one ancient culture not only recognized electricity, but harnessed it and learned how to generate it. Yet, this was not done by the Romans, Greeks or Chinese, generally considered the most technologically advanced of ancient civilizations. Instead, this was accomplished in the Parthian Empire, not especially noted for its engineering or technical prowess.

Baghdad battery jar, copper tube and iron electrode.

In 1936, archaeologists working for the Iraqi Antiquities Authority were excavating the Parthian site of Khujut Rabou near Baghdad when they uncovered a strange pot. The jar was 5.5 inches (14 cm) tall. Inside the mouth of the jar a tube of copper was held in place with an asphalt seal, and inside the tube of copper there was an iron rod also held in place by asphalt.

Wilhelm Koenig, an Austrian who served as director of the Baghdad Museum at the time, recognized that the jar and its odd metal attachments were in a configuration that the whole thing could have functioned as a wet-cell battery. All the battery needed was the addition of an acid. Numerous acids would have been available at the time, including citrus juice and vinegar. The artifact was quickly dubbed the “Baghdad Battery.”[1]

Drawing of the inner workings of the battery. No wires were found with the battery.

Experiments have been conducted with replicas of the jar, using various acids. Salt water corroded the iron so that voltage dropped to minimal levels in 60 seconds. Copper sulfate produced 0.45 volts for several hours until copper plated the iron insert. However, a mixture of acetic acid (distilled vinegar) and grapefruit juice produced 0.49 volts for several days.[2]

More batteries have been found from the Sassanid Period. These batteries were stuffed with papyrus and found in conjunction with magical amulets.[3] But what use would the Parthians and Sassanids have had for a low voltage electrical current? No electrical devices, motors, lights or anything similar have been found anywhere in the ancient world.

Some people claim that evidence of ancient high technology has been hidden or misidentified. For example, they argue that this rock relief from the Dendara temple complex in late Ptolemaic Egypt shows evidence for ancient light bulbs that could have been powered by the Baghdad batteries:

The alleged "Dendera Light."

Based on this drawing, engineers have constructed actual working lightbulbs that resemble this relief. However, this whole thing unravels when you look closer at the “lightbulb” filaments:

The “filament” appears to have scales. And a head. And eyes and a mouth. And a tapering tail. In fact, it’s not a wire or an electrical arc at all. It’s a snake. And the “light socket” is in fact a lotus flower. Snakes and lotus flowers had religious symbolism for the Egyptians, which would explain why such a scene was carved on the wall of a temple. This is all fully explained in this link. In addition, although the Baghdad batteries could have produced electricity, 0.5 volts moving at several miliamps is several hundred times too weak to power a lightbulb.[4]

There are other claims of ancient electrical technology, most of which are the product of people who have the deadly combination of too much time on their hands and access to the internet. Claims exist that the Pyramids were giant power plants which provided electricity to run electrical stonecutting tools. Others say that the Great Pyramid was in fact a giant chemical laser which destroyed a planet of our solar system Death Star style to create the asteroid belt. That’s before we even get to the idea that the ancient Egpytians launched satellites to beam power wirelessly to their tools, or alleged interplanetary war. And the aliens! Don’t forget the aliens.

It’s rather depressing to currently slave away trying to get into grad school, then go to grad school and work for years to get a Ph.D. and slowly work my way through the low ranks of academia, when I could just make something up right now and cash in.

Once all the silliness is cleared away, we still have a dozen or so clay jars from Mespotamia that look and function like batteries. What could they possibly have been used for?

The lack of any apparent use for electric current in ancient Parthia has led some scholars to question if the artifacts were actually used as batteries. Instead, it has been suggested that they were used to store sacred scrolls in such a way as to keep moisture from damaging the papyrus. Papyrus has been found inside several of the batteries. And just because something can be used to produce electricity doesn’t mean that it was. In addition, the seal would prevent the acid from being easily topped off, making the battery disposable (unless of course, the seal was broken and re-sealed).[5]

Yet, anyone can build replicas of the battery, add acid, and get electrical current. This is different from silly reconstructions of the Dendera lights. An exact reconstruction of the Dendera relief would give you a snake touching its tail to a lotus flower, which I can guarantee will not give off light. It seems too great a coincidence that a scroll holder would have an iron rod down the center of a storage jar, for no apparent purpose, which just happened to create an electric current.

Since neither the Parthians nor anyone else in the ancient world developed a working theory of electricity, the discovery of the batteries was likely an accident. Paul Keyser proposed that the connection was first made by someone dipping an iron spoon into a bronze bowl of vinegar. If the Parthians did not mean to create a battery when they made the Baghdad battery, they made one by accident.

Wilhelm Koenig, who originally published the batteries, argued that they were used for electroplating objects with gold or silver. Keyser challenged this. First, he doubted that the Parthians had sufficient knowledge of molecular physics to imagine the process of electroplating. Second, he argued that the Parthians had no way of dissolving gold or silver into a solution that could be used for electroplating. Indeed, solutions that could dissolve gold or silver were not available until 1300 AD. Third, he did not believe that the batteries produced enough current for electroplating. It has been suggested that the batteries could have been connected in a series to provide more voltage, but no wires have been found. What’s more, it’s not clear if anyone in the ancient world understood electricity enough to figure out how to wire batteries in sequence. In addition, no electroplated objects have been found in the ancient world.[6]

A common electric ray, used by Romans and Greeks for pain relief.

Keyser’s alternative proposal is that the batteries were used for medical therapy. He points to the Greeks and Romans, where a treatment for pain involved using a common electric ray (Torpedo torpedo) to deliver electric shocks to patients. Scribonius Largus, the Roman Emperor Claudius’ personal physician, left a medical text which includes instructions on how to treat gout:

For any sort of podagria (foot-gout) when the pain comes on, it is good for one to put a living black
torpedo-fish under his feet while standing on a beach (not dry but one on which the sea washes), until
he feels that his whole foot and shank are numb just up to the knees. This will both relieve the current
pain and alleviate future occurrences.[7]

Egyptian electric catfish mummy in the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California.

Closer to home, the Egyptians are known to have used the electric Nile Catfish to treat headaches and nerve pain. Rays and catfish continued to be used for this purpose until the (re)discovery of the generation of electricity in the late 1600’s.[8]  There is even a medical word for the act of using electric fish to treat pain: Ichthyoelectroanalgesia. Keyser suggests that the batteries were used to apply a mild electrical current for similar treatment of pain. One possible issue is the voltage. The common electric ray can produce 200 volts at about 30 amps.[9] This is orders of magnitude greater than the Baghdad battery’s 0.5 volts. However, Keyser then consulted contemporary medical literature on using electrical current to treat pain and speed the healing of wounds. The currents used in these cases were around 0.8 to 1.4 volts and 0.2 to 1.0 miliamps. This is roughly the same range as the current produced by the Baghdad battery. What’s more, the batteries were found with ritual objects, and ritual objects and amulets were common tools of medicine in the ancient world. Keyser argues this means there are too many coincidences to be pure chance, rather, this indicates that the batteries were likely used for medical treatment.

Paul Craddock from the British Museum has suggested that the batteries were hooked up to statues in Mespotamian temples to give an electric shock to anyone who touched the gods. Craddock has even suggested that they were used to modify behavior by questioning temple-goers and shocking those who gave wrong answers, giving the appearance of divine disapproval.[10] The Parthians were tolerant of local religions and old Mesopotamian polytheistic gods such as Marduk continued to be venerated in Mesopotamia. By the Sassanid period, however, Zoroastrianism was the official state religion and other monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Manichaeism were alternately tolerated and persecuted. At this time, Mesopotamian polytheism with its associated idols was fast dying out.[11] Yet, batteries have still been found in Sassanid Seleucia (unless these were in fact storage cases for scrolls).

A fourth option not commonly considered is that the batteries were simply a curiosity with no practical use. The batteries were neither expensive nor complex to manufacture. Like a sort of ancient shock pen, they could have served as a novelty that gave a mild shock or tingling sensation.

Replica of an aeolipile.

In a similar case, the Greeks invented a novelty device called the aeolipile. This was a small brass ball with two nozzles which was suspended on a stand and filled with water. Lighting a fire under the ball caused the water to boil and steam to shoot out of the nozzles, spinning the ball. Despite the fact that this was a miniature steam engine, this concept was not put to practical use until the Industrial Revolution. The aeolipile remained a desktop curiosity in the ancient world.[12] It is entirely possible that the Baghdad battery had a similar purpose. This would also explain why the technology of the battery did not spread very far. There was no reason for it to spread, as it didn’t really do anything to justify paying a lot of money for it.

In conclusion, it seems that the medical and novelty theories come out slightly ahead. They are more plausible than the religious, non-electric and electroplating theories.

Of course, no discussion of tales of ancient technology can be complete without recourse to the end-all of modern popular scientific debate: Mythbusters. The show tested the Baghdad Battery back in 2005. They build replica batteries and sought to test the electroplating, medical and religious theories of their use. The batteries wired in sequence successfully applied current to a human body, and electroplated a small medallion. However, the batteries were not strong enough to give an electric shock to someone who touched the statue that they constructed, only a tingling sensation. They declared all three uses “plausible.”

The Mythbusters team then decided to hook the statue up to a 10,000 volt electric fence transformer and get an unsuspecting Adam Savage to touch it. The results can be seen below:

A total of 49 Baghdad Battery replicas were featured in a 2010 display by Swedish artist Christian Andersson. The display of ancient electrical cells is to be understood as “undermining preconcepts of development and progress” by showing ancient batteries that existed over 1,700 years before Alexandro Volta invented the modern chemical battery in 1800. And that, in short, is exactly why so many people have found the Baghdad Battery to be such a fascinating artifact.

PS – If you’re still skeptical of any of this and want to test it yourself, you can find instructions on building your own Baghdad Battery here: Building a Baghdad Battery.

References:

[1] Paul T. Keyser, “The Purpose of the Parthian Galvanic Cells: A First Century A.D. Electric Battery used for Analgesia,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Apr., 1993), 81-83; Peter James and Nick Thorpe, Ancient Inventions (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 146-157.

[2] Keyser, “The Purpose of the Parthian Galvanic Cells,” 88-92.

[3] Keyser, “The Purpose of the Parthian Galvanic Cells,” 82; James and Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, 148-149.

[4] Frank Dörnenburg, “Electric Lights in Egypt?” WorldMysteries.com, http://www.world-mysteries.com/sar_lights_fd1.htm (accessed July 29, 2011); Keyser, “The Purpose of the Parthian Galvanic Cells,” 83.

[5] Henry Schlesinger, The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 283-286.

[6] Keyser, “The Purpose of the Parthian Galvanic Cells,” 81, 83, 88-90; Arran Frood, “Riddle of Baghdad’s Batteries” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2804257.stm February 27, 2003 (accessed July 29, 2011).

[7] Scribonius Largus, Compositions, 162 quoted in Keyser, “The Purpose of the Parthian Galvanic Cells,” 93-94.

[8] Umberto Rossi, “The History of Electrical Stimulation of the Nervous System for the Control of Pain,” in Electrical Stimulation for the Relief of Pain, ed. by Brian A. Simpson (Amsterdam: Elsevier Health Sciences, 2003), 5-6; Fred Quarnstrom, “Electronic Dental Anasthesia,” Anesthesia Progress, No. 39, (1992), 162-163.

[9] Susan M. Luna and Nicolas Bailly, “Torpedo torpedo: Common Torpedo,” FishBase, http://www.fishbase.org/summary/Torpedo-torpedo.html (accessed July 29, 2011); “Electric Ray,” http://www.tititudorancea.com/z/electric_ray.htm (accessed July 29, 2011).

[10] Frood, “Riddle of Baghdad’s Batteries.”

[11] Maria Brosius, The Persians: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2006), 125-127; Richard Frye, “The Early Sassanians” in Cambridge Ancient History, 3rd edition, Vol. 12 ed. by Alan K. Bowman, Peter Garnsey and Averil Cameron (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 474-475; Richard Frye, “The Political History of Iran Under the Sasanians” in The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3, ed. by Ehsan Yarshater (Cambridge University Press, 1983), xxxiv, 128-131.

[12] James and Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, 131-135.

Image Sources: (Header) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cloud_to_cloud_lightning_strike_nov08.jpg; http://miscellaneous-pics.blogspot.com/2011/03/ctesiphon-arch-baghdad-battery.html (Main Body) http://miscellaneous-pics.blogspot.com/2011/03/ctesiphon-arch-baghdad-battery.html; http://patentpending.blogs.com/patent_pending_blog/2004/10/the_baghdad_bat.html; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Relief_von_Dendera_li.jpg; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dendera_light_001.jpg; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Torpedo_torpedo_corsica3.jpg; http://www.flickriver.com/photos/mharrsch/255713989/; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aeolipile.jpg

Articles © Christopher Jones 2011.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 12, 2012 1:27 PM

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