As an inventor, he was not a household name. But Lewis Urry’s unsung achievement nearly half a century ago transformed the way we live and helped usher in a world of cordless electric razors, camcorders, cellphones, laptop computers and Walkmans.
Urry, a chemical engineer who developed the first practical long-life alkaline battery that made countless portable electronic devices possible, died Tuesday at Southwest General Health Center in the Cleveland suburb of Middleburg Heights after a brief illness. He was 77.
The Canadian-born Urry was a 28-year-old development engineer for the Canadian National Carbon Co. -- a Toronto division of Union Carbide that made Eveready batteries -- when he was transferred to Eveready’s Cleveland lab in 1955.
His assignment: Find a way to make standard carbon-zinc batteries last longer.
“In those days, toys were coming out that ran on batteries, but they didn’t sell well because the carbon batteries on the market died after a few minutes’ use,” Urry told the Washington Times in 1999.
Early in his research, Urry decided to create a new battery type rather than try to improve on the existing version.
Although scientists had long experimented with cells that used an alkaline material, which generates more power, no one had succeeded in devising the right combination of materials for a small, longer-lasting battery that would be worth the extra cost.
After testing various materials, Urry discovered that manganese dioxide and solid zinc worked well with an alkaline substance as an electrolyte, which conducts the electricity. The cells, however, still weren’t powerful enough.
“My ‘Eureka’ moment came when I realized using powdered zinc would give more surface area,” Urry told the Washington Times.
To demonstrate his battery to his boss, Urry went to a toy store and bought two battery-operated model cars. He put a conventional D-cell battery in one car and his mock-up alkaline battery in the other. Then, with R.L. Glover, the Eveready vice president of technology, watching, Urry set the cars loose on the floor of the plant cafeteria.
“Our car went several lengths of this long cafeteria,” Urry told Associated Press in 1999. “The other car barely moved. Everybody was coming out of their labs to watch. They were all oohing and ahhing and cheering.”
Glover later provided his own demonstration of Urry’s alkaline battery to an executive in the products division in New York City: He loaded one flashlight with a standard battery and one with an alkaline battery, then he left the flashlights on overnight. The next morning, only the alkaline-powered flashlight was still glowing.
“That was it,” Urry later told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “At that point, the whole lab was put on the alkaline project.”
The first Eveready alkaline batteries went on sale in 1959; they were re-branded under the Energizer name in 1980.
Chemical improvements reportedly have made alkaline batteries last 40 times longer than the 1959 version, and an estimated 80% of all batteries sold today are alkaline.
Born in Pontypool, Ontario, Urry served in the Royal Canadian Army from 1946 to 1949. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1950, the same year he went to work at Eveready.
Urry held 51 patents, including a number for the lithium battery, which is used in cellphones and cameras.
In 1999, he was inducted into the hall of fame at the Smithsonian Institution, where he presented the first prototype alkaline battery and the first manufactured cylindrical alkaline cell to the museum’s collection. They were put on display in the same room as Thomas Edison’s light bulb.
Urry retired in May.
Michael Urry told The Times on Friday that his father “realized his work was important, but he was very modest about it. He was happy to see that people were able to take something he came up with and enjoyed their lives better.”
Indeed, as Urry’s son Steven told the Cleveland Plain Dealer last week, their father “took special pride around Christmas, when there was a rush for batteries.”
Urry’s wife, Beverly Ann, died in 1993.
In addition to Michael and Steven, he is survived by his son Gerald, daughters Laurie McCrillis and Kathleen, 15 grandchildren, a great grandson, two brothers and a sister.