Article Image
News Link • Battery Project

A short history of ancient electricity


"Electric batteries, 2000 years ago!!! Surprised? No need to be, really,” declared Willard F. M. Gray, an electrical engineer for General Electric.


“There were some pretty smart metal workers in the ancient city of Baghdad, Persia [now Iraq]. They did a lot of fine work in steel, gold, and silver. You may wonder what this had to do with electric batteries. It seems that copper vases, some of whose ages go back 4000 years, were unearthed several years ago which had designs plated on them in gold or silver, even some were plated with antimony.”

In his editorial titled “A Shocking Discovery,” in a 1963 edition of the prestigious Journal of the Electrochemical Society, he also added:

“Occasionally, we feel a bit smug about our tremendous advances in the nuclear science and the like, but when we are scooped by some ancient metal smiths we are most assuredly brought down to earth and humbled. It will ever be so.” [i]

These so-called Baghdad batteries, discovered in the 1930’s, are now old news, and the evidence that the ancients used them to electroplate some of the artifacts stored in museums around the world is likewise common knowledge.


Nevertheless, for readers who are not familiar with the discovery of these ancient electric cells, we will call on the German rocket scientist Willy Ley to update us.


In a 1939 article in Astounding magazine, he wrote:

“Dr. Wilhelm Koenig of the Iraq Museum in Bagdad reported recently that a peculiar instrument was unearthed by an expedition of his museum in the summer of 1936. The find was made at Khujut Rabu’a, not far to the southeast of Bagdad. It consisted of a vase made of clay, about 14 centimeters high and with its largest diameter 8 centimeters.


The circular opening at the top of the vase had a diameter of 33 millimeters. Inside of this vase a cylinder made of sheet copper of high purity was found—the cylinder being 10 centimeters high and having a diameter of about 26 millimeters, almost exactly 1 inch.

A replica and diagram of one of the ancient electric cells (batteries) found near Bagdad

“The lower end of the copper cylinder was covered with a piece of sheet copper, the same thickness and quality as the cylinder itself. The inner surface of this round copper sheet—the one that formed the inner bottom of the hollow cylinder—was covered with a layer of asphalt, 3 millimeters in thickness. A thick, heavy plug of the same material was forced into the upper end of the cylinder.


The center of the plug was formed by a solid piece of iron—now 75 millimeters long and originally a centimeter or so in diameter. The upper part of the iron rod shows that it was at first round, and while the lower end has partly corroded away so that the rod is pointed now at the lower end, it might be safely assumed that in the beginning it was of uniform thickness.

“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.


The value of this discovery increases when one knows that four similar clay vases were found near Tel’Omar or Seleukia—three of them containing copper cylinders similar to the one found at Khujut Rabu’a. The Seleukia finds were, apparently, less well preserved—there are no iron rods in evidence any more. But close to those four vases pieces of thinner iron and copper rods were found which might be assumed to have been used as conductive wires.

“Similar ‘batteries’ were also found in the vicinity of Bagdad in the ruins of a somewhat younger period. An expedition headed by Professor Dr. E. Kühnel, who is now director of the Staatliches Museum in Berlin, discovered very similar vases with copper and iron parts, at Ktesiphon—not far from Bagdad. These finds date from the time when the dynasty of the Sassanides ruled Persia and the neighboring countries—224 A.D.—651 A.D.

“While the probable date of the invention is entirely open to conjecture, it seems likely that it was made in or near Bagdad, 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 Bagdad itself.


He found that the silversmiths of Bagdad 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.” [ii]

Click above image

A Simple low-voltage electric cell and a simple electroplating bath and procedure

Electrogilding or electroplating basically only requires rods or wire, a couple of simple electric cells (batteries) connected to a bath of common chemicals wherein the items to be electroplated are placed.


However, beside the materials already mentioned, using glass, lead, zinc, and some types of electrolytes like caustic soda and sulfuric acid produce stronger types of non-rechargeable Bagdad-types of primary batteries—as well as powerful rechargeable storage or secondary batteries that could have been used for ancient electric lighting.

The ancients had access to all of these materials:

Bronze Age people made glass around 3,000 B.C., and the Egyptians manufactured glass beads about 2,500 B.C. Later, Alexandrians manufactured modern types of glass, during the Ptolemaic period—when the Pharos Lighthouse rose up.

Prehistoric man smelted Lead. One old piece of lead work in the British Museum dates back to 3,800 B.C. Several millenniums later, Romans were using it at length in their cooking pots, tankards, and plumbing; and many probably poisoned their brains in the process. The resulting insanity may have eventually contributed to the fall of the empire.

With regards to ancient zinc, Rene Noorbergen, pointed out:

“In 1968, Dr. Koriun Megurtchian of the Soviet Union unearthed what is considered to be the oldest large-scale metallurgical factory in the world at Medzamor, in Soviet Armenia. Here, 4,500 years ago, an unknown prehistoric people worked with over 200 furnaces, producing an assortment of vases, knives, spearheads, rings, bracelets, etc.


The Medzamor craftsmen wore mouth-filters and gloves while they labored and fashioned their wares of copper, lead, zinc, iron, gold, tin, manganese and fourteen kinds of bronze. The smelters also produced an assortment of metallic paints, ceramics and glass.” [iii]

REFERENCES [i] “A Shocking Discovery,” Journal of the Electrochemical Society, September 1963, Vol. 110 No. 9

[ii] Under SCIENCE ARTICLES in the March 1939 issue of ASTOUNDING magazine, Willy Ley’s article was listed on the contents page as “ELECTRIC BATTERIES—2,000 YEARS AGO! SO YOU THOUGHT OUR CIVILIZATION FIRST DISCOVERED ELECTRICITY?”

[iii] Secrets of the Lost Races, New Discoveries of Advanced Technology in Ancient Civilizations, New York 1977

Join us on our Social Networks:


Share this page with your friends on your favorite social network: