How Alessandro Volta sparked our love/hate relationship with batteries

Alessandro Volta, celebrated on National Battery Day, February 18, invented one of parent's biggest frustrations today – the battery. 

Jeff Robertson/AP
This Monday, Feb. 2, 2015 photo shows examples of new Energizer EcoAdvanced batteries, at the company's headquarters in St. Louis. Energizer EcoAdvanced is expected in stores this week and are being touted as the first AA and AAA batteries made in part from recycled batteries.

How many parents have watched a child open a gift only to realize that first: a Samurai sword is needed to remove all the packaging, and second: those batteries, necessary for operation, are not included. 

This has happened to me on a couple occasions, as relatives send gifts for my son, excited about the prospect of an interactive toy for him. These toys prove more interactive for me and my husband as we wrestle off the packaging, find a screwdriver to remove the battery pack plate, find batteries (in which drawer?!?), install them, close the battery pack, and distract a toddler who has laid eyes on the toy and can’t understand why it was taken away. 

We’ve learned our lesson, we now pre-open the gifts.

Batteries, like it or not, still have a place in a child’s playtime, powering the sounds and lights on a toddler’s activity table (so we can hear it shout “That’s a RED apple!” 200 times per day) to radio-controlled cars out on the sidewalk, to the re-chargeable batteries found in walkie-talkies that come out on family trips.

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates Alessandro Volta, the creator of the first battery, who developed the basic principles that have led to the modern batteries parents use by the truckload today.

Born February 18, 1745, Mr. Volta discovered that layering metal plates on top of each other, with a brine soaked cloth or piece of cardboard in between each metallic layer, caused a continuous charge. This was known as a voltaic pile and was introduced in 1800.

After Volta’s early experiments, batteries would go through dozens of improvements, leading to the creation of cell batteries in the mid-1800s and the definition of a volt which is recognized today in the International System of Units.

While the modern alkaline batteries that we know of now didn’t come along until the 1950s, the basic concept developed by Volta has endured through centuries of experiments and was eventually able to be shrunken down into a pocket size, perfect for losing in a drawer of odds and ends in the kitchen.

There are a host of rechargeable batteries on the market today, which help to counter a bit of the waste. Also rechargeable batteries, when bought in bulk, do cut down on costs, even when adding costs of kilowatt-hours of home electricity used for recharging. Trent Hamm from the blog The Simple Dollar offers a smart breakdown of costs and benefits between non-rechargeable and rechargeable batteries, taking into account his family’s use of batteries for everything from his son’s toys to his wife’s breast pump.

When it comes to buying fewer items that require batteries, children's toys might offer some of the most hopeful options for battery-weary parents.

Fat Brain Toys is one online shop (with two retail locations in the Midwest US) that offers a host of great ideas for toys that are battery-free and have proven just as fun for adults as they are for kids. A few toys available on the site that won’t break the bank include: Bilibo (ages 2 and up), Perplexus (ages 6 and up), and Goodwood Deconstruction Blocks (ages 3 and up), to name a few. 

These toys are sure to decrease the unwrapping-to-play time for parents, lowering stress, and putting a charge into playtime quickly.

For science-minded parents, kids can also experiment by creating their own batteries, using directions found on sites like Science Buddies. Kids can learn the basics behind the original voltaic pile and create their own battery with pocket change and other items. 

As for other kid-related, battery-powered, items, from video monitors to the battery on the beloved family minivan, parents might not find a battery-free solution soon. But, we can continue to dream, perhaps as we listen to the sounds of the battery-powered sleep machine churning out ocean sounds in the next room over.

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