Biography of William W. Jacques

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William W. Jacques was an electrical engineer and chemist. He developed an electrical battery producing electricity directly from coal (a fuel element according to present terminology).

As an inventor of electrical devices, William W. Jacques showed versatility. He developed several useful telephone components as an engineer with American Bell, and in October 1887 he and partner Lowell Briggs contracted to Thomas Edison the rights to manufacture and market “talking dolls” they had invented that used Edison phonographs.

The original phonograph is shown removed from the doll’s body. Wheninstalled in the doll the tiny horn points up to holes in the chest. The phonograph measures only 7″ tall, with a wax cylinder measuring 3″ in diameter and 5/8″ wide.

Despite several years of experimentation and development, the Edison Talking Doll was a dismal failure that was only marketed for a few short weeks in early 1890.

Edison had envisioned the idea of a talking doll as early as 1877, but it was another inventor, William W. Jacques, who first developed a prototype based on Edison’s original tinfoil phonograph.

Jacques and his partner Lowell Briggs founded the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company in 1887 with Edison agreeing to lend his name to the planned product in return for royalties and stock ownership. Before production began, however, Edison took over the company, demoting the founder and leading to years of ill-will and lawsuits.

In 1896, Jacques “startled the scientific world and general public,” according to one scientist of the day, “by his broad assertion that he had invented a process of making electricity directly from coal.” Jacques worked on the problem of making a source of electric power that was more efficient than existing steam engines and he constructed a “carbon battery” in which air was injected into an alkali electrolyte to react (he thought) with a carbon electrode.

He developed an electrochemical generator that he hoped would convert coal directly into electricity. The apparatus consisted of 100 cells arranged in series and placed on top of a furnace that kept theelectrolyte temperature between 400-500 degrees C.

The output was measured as 16 amps at 90 volts. Initially, Jacques claimed an 82 percent efficiency for his carbon battery, but critics soon pointed out that he had failed to account for the heat energy used in the furnace and the energy used to drive an air pump.

The result was an efficiency of only 8 percent. Further research demonstrated that the current generated by his apparatus was not obtained through electrochemical action, but rather through thermoelectric action. Several subsequent researchers have stated that Jacques’s was the last notable attempt to derive electricity directly from coal.

William Jacques’ carbon cell, 1896

Details of Jacques’s cell are seen in this image: “A carbon, C, is plunged into a solution of caustic soda, E. A pump, A, forces air into a perforatednozzle, R, which distributes the air uniformly in the electrolyte.

The positive pole is fixed upon the iron receiver, I, containing the solution, and the negative pole, B, upon the carbon which is supported and insulated from the receiver by a collar, S. Two tubes, o and i, serve for the admission and discharge of the [electrolyte] solution.”

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