Many small electrical appliances rely on batteries for their power source. They can be for hand-held games such as the Nintendo Game Boy, portable radios, and systems like the Sony Walkman or for remote controls for videos, televisions, and hi-fi equipment.

The development of batteries began with the experiments of Alessandro Volta (1745–1827) and John Frederic Daniell (1790–1845). Volta discovered that when two different metals are in contact with moisture an electrical current is produced. His first “wet cell” battery used alternating zinc and silver discs separated by cloth moistened with a salt solution. Daniell improved on this by using zinc and copper electrodes, resulting in a more practical battery. The “dry cell” battery was developed in the 1860s. This led to the ubiquitous zinc-carbon battery that was to be in use for most of the twentieth century. The so-called dry cell has a moist paste electrode inside a zinc container. The positive electrode is a carbon rod in the center of the cell.

These batteries developed into two basic types, the small cylindrical battery for flashlights (torches), and so on, and the larger, rectangular power pack. The main manufacturers in the United States and the United Kingdom were both called Ever-Ready.

Batteries were important because they made electricity portable. The small inexpensive battery-operated flashlight soon became a household staple. Other appliances (such as radios) had to wait until the associated technological and social conditions allowed them to become smaller. The radios that followed the “cat’s whisker” sets required heavy “wet-cell” batteries. The development of valves allowed the use of lighter “dry-cell” batteries and the portable radio. These models, such as the Pye Type 25 of 1928 (which featured the first of its famous “sunrise” speaker grilles) were heavy due to a combination of batteries and wooden cases. Although a little lighter, even late 1940s and early 1950s models were cumbersome. The British Ever-Ready battery company also produced its own portables.

The development of transistors and radios such as the Sony TR-55 (1955) and the UK Pam (1956) and increasing personal mobility led manufacturers to produce smaller products. The rise of the portable transistor radio was also aided by the growth of rock and roll and a youth culture fuelled by a generation of teenagers with more money and time.

The development of transistors and the culturally driven desire for music and communications on the move has led to a migration of the products from the domestic and office environment into the public realm, as exemplified by the Sony Walkman and the mobile telephone. To keep this revolution going, manufacturers have relied on increasingly efficient lightweight long life batteries.

This trend was exploited by the Duracell Company, which pioneered the marketing of longer-lasting alkaline batteries in the late 1970s and 1980s. It caught the manufacturers of zinc-carbon batteries by surprise, as they were unprepared for the competition. The UK Ever-Ready Company folded in 1981, only to be bought up by an American company, Ralston Purina. In less than ten years alkaline batteries accounted for over 50 percent of U.S. battery sales. Duracell is a division of the Gillette Company and trades in over fifteen countries, employing 4,500 people in the United States, Belgium, China, and India. Although 80 percent of the world market is still zinc carbon, the alkaline battery dominates the Western consumer goods market. Recent trends have been the introduction of power indicators on the sides of the batteries and longer-lasting rechargeable batteries.