Why Aren’t There B Batteries?

Find out why B batteries disappeared from American shelves.
mrs/Moment/Getty Images (batteries), Jon Mayer/Mental Floss (thought bubble)

Maybe it happened when you were buying batteries to go along with a toy you’d picked up as a gift, or perhaps it was when you nabbed replacements for the batteries in your TV remote. But as you perused the AAs, AAAs, Cs, and Ds, you may have asked yourself: Where are all the B batteries, anyway?

A Simplified History of Early Batteries

Though there were earlier experiments involving batteries, what’s widely considered the first true battery was created in 1800 by physicist Alessandro Volta; his device consisted of stacked zinc and copper discs with salt-water-soaked cloth in between. Georges Leclanché invented a battery that involved ammonium chloride solution in 1868, and Carl Gassner created a dry battery (so-called because it contained the solution, keeping it from spilling out). The nickel-cadmium battery was invented by engineer Waldemar Jungner in 1899. Even Thomas Edison got in on the battery game with a nickel-iron storage battery that debuted in 1900.

Setting the Battery Standards

Around the time of World War I, American battery manufacturers, the War Industries Board, and a few government agencies got together to develop some nationally uniform specifications for the size of battery cells, their arrangement in batteries, their minimum performance criteria, and other standards [PDF].

In 1924, industry and government representatives met again to figure out a naming system for all those cells and batteries they had just standardized. They decided to base it around the alphabet, dubbing the smallest cells and single-cell batteries A and going from there to B, C, and D. There was also a No. 6 battery that was larger than the others and pretty commonly used, so it was grandfathered in without a name change.

As battery technology changed and improved and new sizes of batteries were made, they were added to the naming system. When smaller batteries came along, they were designated AA and AAA. These newer batteries were the right size for the growing consumer electronics industry, so they caught on. C and D batteries also found a niche in medium- and high-drain applications.

But the mid-size A and B batteries simply didn’t have a market and more or less disappeared in the U.S. According to a paper published by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Accredited Standards Committee in 2002, “The ‘A cell’ is still manufactured and combined to form large portable batteries for lanterns, especially in Europe. The ‘A battery’ and the ‘B cell’ and ‘B battery’ have disappeared altogether.”

Battery Etymology

While we‘re on the subject of battery names, we should discuss that the first use of battery in the sense of “a combination of simple instruments, usually to produce a compound instrument of increased power” dates back to 1748 and came from none other than Benjamin Franklin. According to Smithsonian, Franklin “discovered that by linking multiple jars together he could increase the amount of charge they could store.”

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin. / Stefano Bianchetti/GettyImages

He wrote about his discovery in Experiments & Observations on Electricity, describing it as “An electrical battery, consisting of eleven panes of large sash-glass, arm’d with thin leaden plates.” He got it from the sense of battery meaning “A number of pieces of artillery placed in juxtaposition for combined action.”

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A version of this story ran in 2012; it has been updated for 2024.