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How Did This Battery Last 175 Years?

Science is at its best and most interesting when expectations are defied. Repeating the results of an experiment can turn a hypothesis into fact, but when results buck the hypothesis, you have to turn your brain on – because then you have a mystery.

Usually researchers have a pretty good idea of what to expect before they undertake an experiment. Generally speaking, experiments take time and money and attention, so taking one on when you don’t have a clue what’s going to happen would be pretty wasteful.

And usually when an experiment goes sideways, the researchers can clean it all up and figure out what happened. But when the experiment doesn’t go according to plan and drags on for over a century? Wow.

There’s an experiment that started in 1840 that’s still going strong. After 175 years, it just won’t quit.

Housed at Oxford University’s Clarendon Laboratory, the “Clarendon Dry Pile” powers a clapper (the thing that rings a bell) suspended between two bells. It’s not your typical AA battery, but researchers aren’t sure exactly what it is. But of course they’re reluctant to shut down the experiment to find out what’s going on under the hood.

There's an experiment that started in 1840 that's still going strong. After 175 years, it just won't quit.
via flickr / gnomonic

You would think somebody would have lost their cool on a bell that has been ringing constantly for 175 years – it’s estimated the bell has rung more than 10 billion times.

But the clapper uses so little energy that the bell rings in name only; it’s barely audible to the human ear.

You would think somebody would have lost their cool on a bell that has been ringing constantly for 175 years – it's estimated the bell has rung more than 10 billion times.
via Giphy | Faith Holland

Researchers do know that the battery in question is a “dry pile” design, the type first developed by Giuseppe Zamboni (no relation to those Zambonis) in 1812.

“Dry piles” use discs of silver, zinc, sulfur, and other metals stacked together to produce low electrical currents.

The researchers don’t know what’s inside the dry piles powering the bell at Clarenedon Laboratory.

So the researchers will have to wait until either the battery finally wears down or the clapper wears out.

Which will come first is anybody’s guess.

What do you think?

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