The Baghdad (Parthian) Battery

In 1936 an object found in central Mesopotamia, an area of Iraq occupied by the Parthians between 248 BCE and 226 CE, came to the attention of Wilhelm Konig a German in charge of the Iraq Museum’s laboratory. He wrote:

“Something rather peculiar was found, and after it had passed through several hands it was brought to me. A vase-like vessel of light yellow clay, whose neck had been removed, contained a copper cylinder which was held firmly by asphalt. The vase was about 15 cm high; the sheet copper cylindrical tube with bottom had a diameter of 26 mm and was 9 cm long. In it, held by a kind of stopper of asphalt, was a completely oxidized iron rod, the top of which projected about 1 cm above the stopper and was covered by a yellowish-gray, fully oxidized thin coating of metal which looked like lead. The bottom end of the iron rod did not extend right to the bottom of the cylinder, on which was a layer of asphalt about 3 mm deep. The question as to what this might be, received the most surprising answer. After all the parts had been brought together and then examined in their separate parts, it became evident that it could only have been an electrical element. It was only necessary to add an alkaline liquid to complete the element.”

Confirmation of Konig’s theory came years later from another German, Dr Arne Eggebrecht, an Egyptologist who found the apparatus included in an exhibition at the museum where he worked. Employing exact replicas of the components, the vase filled with fresh grape juice, Eggebrecht obtained surprising results. A voltmeter connected to the device registered a half volt of electricity.

That the apparatus could indeed store and produce electric current (was in fact a battery) helped clear up an age old
archaeological mystery, the puzzle being that many ancient statues on display in the worlds museums appear to be electroplated. (An electric current run through a gold-cyanide solution in which a silver statue is immersed induces a thin veneer of gold to adhere to the statue.) A simple test proved the hypothesis to be correct, batteries it seems are not a modern invention and were in fact being used for industrial purposes two thousand years ago. It appears Volta and Galvani were not their inventors, they merely re-introduced them to the modern world.

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