Neither the First World War nor the refusal of a patent was enough to stop Victor Herold from creating the first company producing nickel-alkaline batteries in France. Despite numerous setbacks and difficulties, his pioneering work formed the basis of an industrial adventure that continues to this day.
The first non-rechargeable battery was invented by Alessandro Volta in 1800; the Italian physicist realized that it was possible to create a continuous flow of electrical energy by using conducting fluids to produce a chemical reaction between two metals. With constant improvement, batteries were an essential source of energy by the end of the 19th century, powering technologies such as the telegraph.
Research continued to make batteries lighter and longer lasting. In 1901, the first rechargeable alkaline batteries appeared. They were more efficient and easier to store than their earlier lead-acid counterparts. As with many inventions, the technology was “discovered” by two different parties at almost the same time. On January 21, 1901, a Swedish engineer named Waldemar Jungner filed a patent application, followed on February 6 by Thomas Edison with one for a similar device. It is fair to say that the American inventor supplied much more detail than his Swedish counterpart.
When Thomas Edison began selling the batteries in 1902, Jungner took him to court for patent infringement. The lawsuit lasted for five years, and in the end the claim was dismissed. Jungner had never fully developed the nickel-iron battery, preferring to bet on his nickel-cadmium one. In the meantime, Thomas Edison had equipped thousands of trucks with his own nickel-iron batteries.
Impressed by this success in the United States, one of Edison’s German friends asked for and received a license to produce and sell the product in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Sigmund Bergmann set up his company, DEAC, in 1904.
DEAC was the firm Victor Herold joined three years later. Born in Paris in 1883 to Swiss parents, he had studied chemistry at the Zurich Polytechnic school from 1901 to 1905. Almost as soon as he started working for DEAC, he travelled to West Orange, New Jersey, home of the research and development center of Edison General Electric, to learn about the industrial processing of the active materials.
Victor Herold starts out in France
DEAC did not succeed in Germany because of increasing competition from lead-acid batteries, which although less durable were cheaper. The company was eventually sold to AFA – a competitor in lead batteries – and production of alkaline batteries stopped. Victor Herold tried to buy the business himself, but his offer was rejected.
He then decided to open his own factory in France. He had the capital, mainly thanks to his family, and qualified staff because some of the DEAC team – the chief engineer, chief designer and an equipment foreman – were prepared to follow him. Together they created the Société Industrielle des Accumulateurs Alcalins (S.I.A.A), or the Industrial Alkaline Battery Company, in 1913.
Because of the failure of DEAC in Germany and therefore Edison’s disillusionment, the French firm was refused the American inventor’s patent for his resistant alkaline battery made of tubular pocket plates. Undeterred, Victor Herold decided instead to specialize in alkaline batteries with traditional pocket plates. While a factory was being built in Romainville near Paris, the company rented a workshop in rue Servan in the French capital to prepare all the equipment it would need.
In May 1914, the factory was ready – however in August, the First World War broke out. The German staff had to leave France, and the premises were commandeered by the French army before production could even begin.
Saft’s first customer
The very short story of S.I.A.A ends there, but Victor Herold’s own industrial adventure entered a new chapter in 1917. Suffering from a gasoline shortage after three years of war, France saw a solution in the U.S. army electric vehicles, which were powered by Edison alkaline batteries.
The Ministry of Armaments asked car manufacturer Louis Renault to set up a factory making rechargeable alkaline batteries. Renault turned to Herold with a request to get his plant working again, and on November 22, 1918, S.A.F.T. (Société des Accumulateurs Fixes et de Traction) was created with one million francs in capital from French car manufacturers and the electrical industry.
Saft’s first products – an order of 25 batteries to power the electric luggage trolleys in the Gare de Lyon – were delivered in late 1919. The station was at that time the headquarters of the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée (P.L.M.) railway, one of six train companies that later merged to become SNCF.
Saft batteries were also used to power lights for trains’ passenger cars, outperforming and then superseding lead-acid batteries. In 1921, a train equipped with gas lights caught fire in the Batignolles Tunnel in Paris, causing dozens of casualties, and electric lighting became mandatory for all trains three years later.
The railway sector was Saft’s first client, and remains an important growth area for the company 100 years later.