Lew Urry, developer of the first commercially viable alkaline battery, holds an Energizer battery in the lab at the Eveready Battery Company in Westlake, Ohio. Those first batteries were made in 1959 by the Eveready Battery division of Union Carbide. The battery was rebranded under the Energizer name in 1980, and the division was sold to St. Louis-based Ralston Purina in 1986.
In 1955, Eveready moved researcher Lew Urry from an office in Toronto to its Cleveland plant and told him to come up with a better battery. At the time, the state of the art was the carbon zinc battery. Urry began looking at past failed experiments with alkaline, in which electrons pass from an anode made of zinc to a cathode made of manganese di and carbon while immersed in an alkaline electrolyte.
Urry experimented with different combinations of materials. He struck pay dirt when he used zinc in a loosely packed powder form. He also discarded the button-shape of the earlier alkaline batteries, going instead with a cylinder shape of commercial batteries already on the market. By the late 1950's he'd honed what he thought was a pretty good alkaline battery, and was ready to try and persuade the company to put the battery on the market. Using a mockup battery from an empty flashlight shaft, Urry put his prototype into a toy car, and a carbon zinc battery into an identical toy. He grabbed Eveready vice president of technology R.L. Glover and headed for the cafeteria at the Cleveland plant.
By the early 1960's, the alkaline was changing the way we lived. If you wanted to listen to the radio, you could go for a walk with your transistor, rather than gathering with family around the living-room console. The alkaline battery continues to improve. Energizer officials say today's battery lasts 40 times longer than the 1959 prototype. However, some of these cells are still corroding badly as you can see here.
''Our car went several lengths of this long cafeteria . 'The other car barely moved. Everybody was coming out of their labs to watch. They were all oohing and ahhing and cheering."
His son, Steven Urry, said Tuesday that his father never boasted about his invention but was pleased by its widespread use.
"He took special pride around Christmas, when there was a rush for batteries," his son said. "He didn't brag on himself. It wasn't until we got older that we realized what he had done." Urry retired in May from Energizer, the company that uses a drum-beating pink bunny as its advertising symbol, one of the most recognized in the world. The firm is the successor to Union Carbide's National Carbon Co., where Urry developed the first practical long-life battery.
"It saddens us greatly to learn of Lew's passing," said Dan Carpenter, Energizer's vice president and technology chief. "Here at Energizer, we refer to Lew as the 'father of alkaline.' " In 1955, National Carbon, maker of Eveready batteries, transferred Urry from Toronto to its Cleveland laboratory with a mandate to improve on short-lived carbon zinc batteries that were state of the art.
Urry used a version of the alkaline battery that Edison invented in 1901 and set out to make it practical. Using powdered zinc as the electrolyte, Urry soon was ready to demonstrate the power of his new idea. He went to a toy store and bought a pair of model cars. He put a regular D cell in one and his new invention in the other, then brought the vice president of technology down to the company cafeteria for a demonstration.
The car with the carbon battery went a short distance and stopped. The one with Urry's battery went back and forth for so long that lab workers who cheered it on got bored and went back to their offices. Today, an estimated 80 percent of the dry cell batteries in the world are based on his work. He held 51 patents, several of them for the lithium battery, which is used in cell phones and cameras.
His invention allowed a cordless lifestyle for people around the world. It is a key factor in the widespread use of devices such as electric razors, laptop computers, camcorders and video games. Urry was born in Pontypool, Ontario. After he served as a captain in the Canadian army, he earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at the University of Toronto in 1950, then went to work for National Carbon.
Urry married Beverly Ann Carlock in 1960 and became a U.S. citizen. They moved to Eaton Township in 1992 after living in Columbia Township for 17 years. He was a vegetable gardener.