The 2,000 year old Baghdad Battery
The following article is an excerpt taken from Chapter 5 'Out Of Time And Place' from The Myth Of Man by JP Robinson.
In June of 1936, a mysterious small yellow clay vase was discovered in an ancient tomb by workers excavating the ruins of the 2,000 year old village of Khujut Rabu’a, near the southeast of Baghdad in Iraq.
Archaeologists used other relics in the tomb to identify the artefact as belonging to the Parthian Empire whom, although nomadic and apparently illiterate, dominated the Fertile Crescent area near the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers between 190 BC and 224 AD.
In 1938, the previously overlooked artefact which was gathering dust on a shelf at the National Museum of Iraq was examined by an assistant of the museum, archaeologist Dr. Wilhelm Koenig (or Konig), and what was at first perceived as a simple vase, not uncommon of the type found during that period, turned out to be much more than it initially appeared.
The 2,000 year old Baghdad battery predates the ‘official’ invention of the electrical battery by Allesandro Volta in 1799.
The Baghdad or Parthian battery (above) is composed of clay with an asphalt stopper sealing the contents inside. An iron rod sticks through the asphalt and into a cylinder made of a sheet of high purity copper. The cylinder is 10 cm high with a diameter of one inch, and it sits inside the vase which measures 14 cm in height with the circular opening at the top of the vessel being 3.3 cm in diameter. The rod showed signs of corrosion from some form of acidic substance, the kind which would be necessary to generate a small electrical charge.
Dr. Paul Craddock, a metallurgy expert at the British Museum, told the BBC in 2003, “The batteries have always attracted interest as curios. They are a one-off. As far as we know, nobody else has found anything like these. They are odd things; they are one of life’s enigmas.”
The unusual artefact which is believed to be around 2,000 years old and originated from the Parthian period was actually not an isolated discovery. Professor Dr. Ernst Kuhnel, whilst director of the Staatliche Museum of Berlin, headed an expedition and discovered similar vases or ‘batteries’ with copper and iron parts at a site in Ctesiphon, also in the vicinity of Baghdad. These particular finds date from a later period than the Baghdad battery, during the period of the Sassanid Empire between 205 and 651 AD.
Despite the lack of evidence to support the theory, Dr. Koenig was the first to suggest a possible use for the Baghdad battery when he claimed that they could have been used in ancient times for electroplating gold onto silver objects, a method still in use in Iraq today. The vase when filled with an electrolyte solution such as vinegar was capable of producing between 1.5 and 2 volts of electricity between the copper and iron, which would make the clay artefact the first documented battery invention in history.
It is still possible however, that there may have been earlier examples of such technology as Dr. Koenig also found Sumerian copper vases plated with silver dating back to 2500 BC, although no actual Sumerian batteries have been discovered thus far. However, not everyone has been convinced of the battery theory.
Professor of Archaeology at Stony Brook University, Elizabeth Stone disagrees completely and in a 2012 interview she stated as much: “My recollection of it is that most people don't think it was a battery. It resembled other clay vessels . . . used for rituals, in terms of having multiple mouths to it. I think it's not a battery. I think the people who argue it's a battery are not scientists, basically. I don't know anybody who thinks it's a real battery in the field.”[i]
German-American science writer and science historian Will Ley didn’t see the ancient Iraqi vase serving any other purpose other than that proposed by Koenig in 1938, ‘An assembly of this kind cannot very well have any other purpose than that of generating a weak electric current. If one remembers that it was found among undisturbed relics of the Parthian Kingdom - which existed from 250 B.C. to 224 A.D. - one naturally feels very reluctant to accept such an explanation, but there is really no alternative.’[ii]
Ley went on to say, ‘While the probable date of the invention is entirely open to conjecture, it seems likely that it was made in or near Baghdad, since all known finds were made in the vicinity of this city. It must be assumed, of course, that the subjects of the Sassanides had some use for them, and Dr. Koenig, the discoverer of the best preserved of all these vases, suggests that this use might still be in evidence in Baghdad itself. He found that the silversmiths of Baghdad use a primitive method of electroplating their wares. The origin of their method cannot be ascertained and seems to date back a number of years. Since galvanic batteries of the type found would generate a sufficiently powerful current for electrogilding small articles fashioned of silver, it might very well be that the origin of the method has to be sought in antiquity.’
History currently credits the Italian physicist and chemist Alessandro Volta as the inventor of the electrical battery, since he published results of his experiments with electrical currents in 1799. The ‘voltaic pile’ (below) was the first electrical battery to harness the natural force and continuously provide an electric current to a circuit, thus becoming the first electrochemical cell.
Volta’s battery consisted of two electrodes, one made of copper and the other zinc, whilst either sulphuric acid mixed with water or a saline solution provided the electrolyte that was required to transmit the current.
In 1940, Willard F.M. Gray, an engineer working for the General Electric High Voltage Laboratory in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, designed a replica of the Baghdad battery after having read Koenig’s theory. Using a copper sulphate solution Gray’s replica produced 0.5 volts of electricity, thus proving the viability of the original 2,000 year old vessel’s purpose as a battery.
German Egyptologist Arne Eggebrecht also replicated the anomalous artefact in the 1970s, this time filling the vase with freshly pressed grape juice as he believed that Egyptians would have used the same substance thousands of years ago. Remarkably, Eggebrecht’s version generated 0.87 volts, enough electricity to enable him to electroplate a silver statue with gold, just as Koenig had speculated decades earlier.
Hundreds of people around the world have reproduced the Baghdad battery since, all with incredible success, thus proving that in all likelihood electric battery technology was already invented, available, and in use almost 1,800 years before Volta’s ingenious ‘pile’ came to fruition.
Speculation regarding the intended function of the ancient Iraqi vessel may continue to rumble on over the coming years as the concept of such an ancient battery changes our modern historical understanding of such a vital invention, but other evidence also exists which suggests electricity may well have been in use thousands of years ago.
Regarding the use of electricity in the distant past, H.P. Blavatsky wrote in Isis Unveiled, ‘It is generally asserted that neither the early inhabitants of the Mosaic times, nor even the more civilized nations of the Ptolemaic period were acquainted with electricity. If we remain undisturbed in this opinion, it is not for the lack of proofs to the contrary.’[iii]
[i] Stone, Elizabeth (1939) “Archaeologists Revisit Iraq”, Science Friday, (Interview with Ira Flatow), March 2012
[ii] Ley, Willy – article in Astounding Magazine.
[iii]Blavatsky, H.P. (1877) Isis Unveiled: A Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology, New York.