Electricity

No One Knows How This Mysterious Battery Has Lasted More Than 175 Years

There's a mystery sitting in the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University. A bell in the lab has been ringing for more than 175 years, and no one quite knows why.

A Mysterious Ringing

The bell, which some call the Oxford Electric Bell and others call the Clarendon Dry Pile, has been ringing since 1840. Well —"ringing" is a strong word. The bell is "practically inaudible," and even harder to hear because it's kept in a protective glass case. However, if you get quite close, you can see the clapper vibrating at an impressive speed, if not an impressive volume. According to the university, the bell, which is powered by this single, seemingly immortal battery, has rung approximately 10 billion times. The mystery is: How has it lasted so long? And how on earth is it still going?

A Hyper-Durable Battery

Here's what we know: The same battery has been powering the bell all these years, but researchers would almost certainly ruin its streak if they opened it to find out what's going on inside.

This battery is what's called a "dry pile," which was one of the first types of electric batteries. These work by using alternating discs of silver, zinc, and sulfur, plus other materials, to generate electricity. (Back when people were still figuring out the dry pile, they experimented with organic materials, too, like radish and beet slices. Science!)

We don't know exactly what the "piles" in the Oxford Bell's battery are made of — but we also don't need to know to start giving it prizes. The Guinness Book of World Records has already named it the "world's most durable battery" for its "ceaseless tintinnabulation" (amazing word choice, Guinness team), and it doesn't seem like it's going to run out of steam anytime soon. According to one paper, "on present form the clapper seems more likely to wear out than the electro-chemical energy to be exhausted."

In other words: The battery looks to be more durable than solid metal. And it could be many more years before the battery dies, and we finally get to see if there are any radish slices inside.

The Battery That's Lasted 176 Years

When will the Oxford Bell stop?

Written by Mae Rice April 18, 2018

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