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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Behind the Scenes with IMLS: Batteries Included

May 10, 2018

imls-logoIn October 2017, Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation was awarded another Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant, allowing us to continue working to catalog, conserve, package, and rehouse over 3,000 items out of our Collections Storage Building. We've had the opportunity to work with some very interesting objects for this grant, from agricultural equipment to advertisement signs. There is a wide array of objects passing through the labs, visible to the public through the windows at the back of the museum. 

This spring we treated many batteries made by Thomas Edison. Most of these originated from the late 19th century and varied in condition and composition. These early battery types consist of metal plates that were immersed in an electrolyte solution to generate electricity. The batteries themselves were stable and safe to handle because they contained no electrolyte. The batteries with unknown compositions sparked our curiosity (pun intended), since we needed to know what they were made of so that we could properly conserve them.

Sometimes while working in the lab, we need specialized equipment that we may not have on site. Fortunately, museums often work collaboratively to help each other find solutions. In this case, we collaborated with Conservation Scientist Christina Bisulca and the well-equipped analytical conservation lab at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA had the right tool for the job - a high-powered optical microscope and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer. An XRF spectrometer is essential to conservators because it is used to identify metals. It uses an X-ray beam to produce enough energy to excite electrons within the atoms of metal elements. When that energy is released, a specific signal is registered within the XRF spectrometer and the metal is identified.

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The DIA’s XRF spectrometer analyzing the central core of one of the batteries. (Photo courtesy of Misty Grumbley.)

At the beginning of March, we brought several batteries to test at the DIA, including an Edison-Lalande battery, a Samson battery, and an Edison S-Type battery. The Edison S-type battery was particularly interesting, since we were not able to find any similar batteries to compare it to, and could not confirm the materials used through research alone.


With the help of the analytical equipment, we confirmed that the Samson battery was a carbon-zinc battery, and we looked at some interesting corrosion products – which are still in need of further analysis. We established that the Lalande battery is a copper-zinc cell, and we discovered that the Edison S-Type has zinc plates, making it likely an early copper-zinc cell. With the composition determined, the collection of batteries was properly treated, photographed, packaged, and rehoused.

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Performing analysis of Edison-Lalande battery with the optical microscope. (Photo courtesy of Misty Grumbley.)

You can learn more about XRF spectrometry here. Thank you to Dr. Christina Bisulca at the DIA! As always, please watch our Facebook Live broadcast the first Friday of every month to see the ongoing work in the conservation lab.

Misty Grumbley is a Conservation Specialist on the IMLS-funded grant project at The Henry Ford.

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