The Baghdad Batteries: Were Babylonians able to generate electricity in 250 BC?

May 28, 2009 at 4:06 pm (Metallurgy, Technology, The Ancient World, The Arab World) (, , , , , , , , )

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In the mid 1930s a series of curious objects, believed to date from the 3rd century BC, were unearthed in Khujut Rabu, near Baghdad. These earthenware jars, measuring about 5 inches high, contained copper cylinders and iron rods. This strange group of objects, not given any special attention, found its way into the collection of the National Museum of Iraq. It was not until several years later that Wilhelm Konig, the museum’s director, came across these jars and pieces of metal and, upon analyzing them, drew a startling conclusion.

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In 1940 Konig published a paper contending that when the pieces of these artifacts were fitted together correctly and the jars were filled with an acidic solution, they formed functional electrochemical cells capable of generating electricity. While modern historians attribute the invention of the battery to Italian physicist Alessandro Volta in 1800, Volta may have simply recreated a 2,000 year-old lost technology. (Cultures dating as far back as 2,750 BC made written mention of electricity, although only regarding electricity that occurs naturally. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that serious academic inquiries into electricity were conducted by Western scientists, notably William Gilbert and Benjamin Franklin.)

Volta’s early “Voltaic pile” battery consisted of copper and zinc rods separated by pieces of cloth soaked in brine. When several of these units were piled atop one another and connected end-to-end by a wire, an electrical current flowed.

Volta’s early “Voltaic pile” battery consisted of copper and zinc rods separated by pieces of cloth soaked in brine. When several of these units were piled atop one another and connected end-to-end by a wire, an electrical current flowed.

The Baghdad batteries, Konig believed, worked in the same way as the Voltaic pile. This theory is supported by the fact that the iron rods discovered inside the earthenware jars do in fact show evidence of acidic corrosion, perhaps having been submerged in vinegar. Konig suggested that when the iron rods were inserted into the copper cylinders, fitted into the jars’ mouths with asphalt stoppers, and the jars were filled with vinegar, the resulting cells were in fact capable of producing an electrical current. This claim was proved in 1940 by Willard F. M. Gray of the General Electric High Voltage Laboratory in Pittsfield, MA. Making an exact replica of the devices unearthed at Khujut Rabu and using a copper sulfite solution, Gray generated a half a volt of electricity.

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Later experiments using grape juice and vinegar produced similar results. Even the popular television program Mythbusters successfully recreated Gray’s experiment in 2005. While the voltage generated by these batteries is meager (never more than 1V), it has been hypothesized that if several of them were wired together as were the zinc and copper rods in Voltaic piles, higher voltage could be achieved.

Here is a reproduction of a Baghdad battery connected to a multimeter.

Here is a reproduction of a Baghdad battery connected to a multimeter.

Konig cited examples of artifacts electroplated with gold, dating from the same era as the batteries, as evidence of the use of low-voltage electricity in the 3rd century BC. By negatively charging a piece of metal with an electrical current and submerging it in a solution of metal salt, it becomes coated with a layer of positive metal ions. This technique has been used, for example, in the process of gold plating. Gold-coated Egyptian artifacts dating contemporaneously with the Baghdad batteries might support this interpretation of the batteries’ use.

A summary of the conclusions drawn by the television program Mythbusters, regarding possible uses of the Baghdad batteries.

A summary of the conclusions drawn by the television program Mythbusters, regarding possible uses of the Baghdad batteries.

In the years since Konig published his paper in 1940, there has been much debate about the batteries in the scientific community. With some factions contending that the notion of ancient electricity is farcical and others going so far as to claim that the Baghdad batteries explain the legendary powers of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, a wide range of viewpoints have been expressed. Since ancient texts never explicitly confirm knowledge of usable electrical energy, modern historians are doomed to continue speculating about the role, if any at all, that controlled electricity played in ancient Babylonia. But when pondering objects that have the potential to drastically redefine our conception of ancient history, as with the Piri Reis map discussed in a previous entry, an open mind is certainly the most suitable tool.

Some Further Reading:

The Baghdad Batteries on WorldMysteries.com

The Baghdad Batteries on the UnMuseum

A description of how electroplating works

Some information about Alessandro Volta and his accomplishments

A history of batteries, complete with a timeline

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The Cryptocartography of Piri Reis

May 25, 2009 at 3:03 pm (Cartography, Military, Nautical, Technology, The Ancient World, The Arab World) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

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Hadji Muhiddin Piri Ibn Hadji Mehmed, better known as Piri Reis, was a Turkish admiral and cartographer who produced many historically important and remarkably accurate maps of the Mediterranean during the first half of the 16th century. Perhaps his most famous map, drawn in 1513, is known as the First World Map. This map has been the subject of much speculation and contention due to some of its striking and peculiar characteristics, specifically its depiction of South America and what may be Antarctica.

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Drawn on gazelle skin and measuring 90 cm x 63 cm , the map was lost to the world until its rediscovery in 1929 in Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace, a discovery that has sparked decades of debate. Text on the map states that Reis drew it based largely on ancient cartographical information that he gathered from other maps drawn by Roman cartographer and all-around Renaissance man Claudius Ptolemaeus (better known as Ptolomy) who lived during the 2nd century AD. (Ptolomy, it should be noted, introduced the use of longitude and latitude, which are essential tools of modern cartography). Reis also drew information from Indian, Portuguese, and Arabic maps, and even a map drawn by Christopher Columbus. Some of his source maps, historians speculate, were derived from those housed in the legendary Library of Alexandria before it burned in 48 BC, depriving the modern world of incalculable volumes of ancient knowledge.

Synthesizing information from such diverse sources, Reis compiled one of the most accurate world maps of the 16th century. Here is an illustration of the remarkable precision with which the First World Map depicts the eastern coast of South America.

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What makes this map truly fascinating, however, is the land mass depicted to the lower right. While some claim that is it a misplaced representation of Patagonia, others contend that it is in fact the coastline of Antarctica. This latter interpretation has forced historians to drastically reconsider the timeline of ancient geographical knowledge.

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If the First World Map does indeed depict Antarctica, this invalidates the widely held assumption that humans first discovered Antarctica in 1820 when a Russian expedition stumbled upon the massive continent. Even more startling, however, is that fact that the area of Antarctica purportedly shown on the map, known as the Princess Martha Coast, has been covered by large sheets of ice, measuring a mile thick, for over 6,000 years. The U.S. Navy Hydrographic Bureau has employed modern technology to peer beneath this cover of ice and map the actual coastline, and has found that the First World Map depicts it with startling accuracy. Here is a letter from Air Force Commander Harold Z. Ohlmeyer to Charles H Hapgood, an expert who has written extensively about Piri Reis, regarding the map’s accuracy:

“6, July, 1960


Subject: Admiral Piri Reis Map


TO: Prof. Charles H. Hapgood
Keene College
Keene, New Hampshire




Dear Professor Hapgood,


Your request of evaluation of certain unusual features of the Piri Reis map of 1513 by this organization has been reviewed. The claim that the lower part of the map portrays the Princess Martha Coast of Queen Maud Land, Antarctic, and the Palmer Peninsular, is reasonable. We find that this is the most logical and in all probability the correct interpretation of the map. The geographical detail shown in the lower part of the map agrees very remarkably with the results of the seismic profile made across the top of the ice-cap by the Swedish-British Antarctic Expedition of 1949. 
This indicates the coastline had been mapped before it was covered by the ice-cap. The ice-cap in this region is now about a mile thick. We have no idea how the data on this map can be reconciled with the supposed state of geographical knowledge in 1513.



Harold Z. Ohlmeyer Lt. Colonel, USAF Commander”

Could it be possible that an ancient thalassocracy, unknown to modern historians, discovered and mapped in great detail the coastline of Antarctica 6,000 or more years ago, and then passed this information down through the millennia until it found its way into the Library of Alexandria only to be fortuitously reproduced before it would have otherwise been forever lost upon the library’s destruction? While many modern academics dismiss this theory as fantastical poppycock, I cannot bring myself to discard the possibility that ancient civilizations were advanced in ways that would astound us if only their accomplishments hadn’t been lost to the great eraser of time.

Some Further Reading:

Here is an extensive look at the controversies surrounding the map

A site devoted to the history of polar discovery

A blog that links to many interesting sites concerning cartography

A bit about the tragic destruction of the Library of Alexandria

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An Inquiry Into Notable Historical Figures: Isabelle Eberhardt

May 21, 2009 at 3:41 pm (Drugs, Exclusive Societies, Military, Sexuality, The Arab World, Women) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

When pondering eras past, is it deceptively easy to reduce an entire culture, time-period, or social movement to a simplified list of customs, events, and personalities. One of Irrational Geographic’s missions is to highlight moments and individuals that have the ability to jar us out of this facile interpretation of history. An exemplary specimen of this is the traveller, hedonist, writer, and all-around iconoclast Isabelle Eberhardt (1877 – 1904).

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Growing up in Geneva during the final years of the 19th century, Eberhardt possessed the then unheard-of cultural advantages of having an intellectual, nihilist, former Orthodox priest for a father and an aristocrat with imperial familial connections for a mother. This combination of influences and resources, coupled with an endlessly inquisitive nature, gave her the wherewithal to embrace foreign cultures and languages, and the means with which to pursue these interests through study and travel.

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Since women were afforded precious few rights in 19th century Switzerland, Eberhardt augmented her autonomy by dressing as and affecting the mannerisms of a man. This would allow her freedom hitherto unknown to women when she was brought by her mother first to other parts of Europe, and later to northern Africa. Eberhardt’s father encouraged her cross-dressing, and further aided her personal growth by teaching her six languages, cultivating in her an interest in metaphysics, and introducing her to Islam. Eberhardt’s life trajectory was cemented when her family relocated to Algeria and fell in with Arab anti-imperialists.

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Upon the death of her mother, Eberhardt was finally afforded the freedom to pursue her passions on her own terms. As she herself put it, “The farther behind I leave the past, the closer I am to forging my own…” Following the death of her father two years later, Eberhardt fully embraced the nomadic lifestyle of Sahara-dwelling Arabs. Her promiscuous tendencies made it well-known that she was biologically a woman, but the Arab community accepted her as a man. She also indulged in the use of drugs and alcohol, despite the fact that these endeavors were prohibited by Saharan custom. In the words of one of Eberhardt’s friends, “She drank more than a Legionnaire, smoked more kif than a hashish addict, and made love for the love of making love.” This highlights the contradictory nature of the hybrid identity that Eberhardt managed to establish.

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Despite the apparent ambiguity of her cultural allegiances, Eberhardt was spiritually committed to, and fully accepted by, the secretive Sufi sect (even becoming a close friend of the sect’s spiritual leader), which seemed to turn a blind eye to her decadent lifestyle. Eberhardt also managed to marry and Arab soldier named Slimene Ehnni, who apparently tolerated her notorious promiscuity. Herein lies the intriguing mystery of Isabelle Eberhardt. She was a European-born white woman who lived freely in the Arab world as a man (assuming the masculine name Si Mahmoud Essadi), openly using drugs and alcohol while a devoted member of a temperant sect, and maintaing a marriage with an Arab man while still freely exploring her sexuality. She was a woman of contradictions who redefined the world in which she lived.

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It seems fitting, then, that even in death she was an iconoclast. Eberhardt once wrote that, “Death does not frighten me, but dying obscurely and above all uselessly does.” The universe was seemingly ignorant of, or humorously invested in, this sentiment when, on October 1 of 1904, the 27-year-old Eberhardt, while recovering form a bout of malaria, perished in a flash flood in the Ain Sefra municipality of Algeria. This death could not, it seems, have been any more obscure or useless.

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While relatively unknown during her lifetime, Eberhardt’s writings have received some posthumous attention. Several journals and one novel, penned by Eberhardt during her travels, give contemporary readers a glimpse into the unique life of a cross-dressing, hedonistic, European woman living happily in the orthodox climate of turn-of-the-century northern Africa. Several essays, linked below, explore many intriguing facets of Eberhardt’s life and adventures.

Some Further Reading:

A succinct biography

An interesting article exploring the unconventional nature of her life

A site that discusses Eberhardt’s writings

A brief collection of quotes attributed to Eberhardt

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