Charged up by what I know about batteries

When Benjamin Franklin needed a name for his device for storing electricity, he borrowed a military term.

Matt Rourke/AP
Workmen wrap a statue of Benjamin Franklin in protective cover in preparation for upcoming construction at the The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 2013.

So far, the most interesting etymological factoid of my week is that the one who first called a device for storing electricity a battery was none other than the American statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin.

But factoid may not be the right word here. Norman Mailer is widely credited with having coined it to mean “a piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact even though it’s not actually true, or an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print,” as Time magazine explained a couple of years ago. Later, the CNN Headline News TV channel appropriated factoid to mean “a brief, somewhat interesting fact,” a usage some authorities have come to accept, albeit not without a sniff of regret.

Some point out that the -oid suffix indicates that which resembles a thing but is not that thing: A humanoid is not a human. One alternative is factlet. But that’s a lot of consonants piled up together. English-speakers aren’t like Russians, for instance, chewing through sounds like so much black bread. Is there another term? Factette? Factino? Factillo? The Romance languages are better at this kind of thing. But I digress.

Back to battery: Franklin’s “electrical battery” was a handsome wooden box, somewhat bigger than today’s plastic milk crates, containing a collection of Leyden jars. A Leyden jar, an early capacitor, “stores” static electricity between two electrodes on the inside and outside of a glass jar. 

It appears that two different people came up with the idea about 1745: a German cleric named Ewald Georg von Kleist, off in a remote corner of Prussia, now part of Poland, and a Dutch scientist named Pieter van Musschenbroek, of Leiden, then commonly spelled Leyden. There’s a reason we call these things Leyden jars, and not, say, Kleist-Musschenbroek jars. Franklin and others used them in some of the important early experiments with electricity, and they are still used today to teach electrostatics.

When Franklin called his collection of jars a “battery,” he drew on a military metaphor: Battery was a term for weapons functioning together. 

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that battery came into English in the 1530s meaning the “action of battering.” The dictionary continues: “Meaning shifted in Middle French from ‘bombardment’ (‘heavy blows’ upon city walls or fortresses) to ‘unit of artillery’ (a sense recorded in English from 1550s).” The word that originally referred to the action came to mean the thing that produced
the action. 

The dictionary dates Franklin’s appropriation of battery to the field of electricity to 1748 and speculates that it comes “perhaps from the artillery sense via notion of ‘discharges’ of electricity.”

Franklin was as inventive with words as he was with things. And his useful adaptation of a military term to the field of electricity is another example of how words left lying around the vocabulary workshop get picked up and pressed into service to meet new needs.

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