How the First Electrical Systems Were Powered by Mice on Treadmills

How the First Electrical Systems Were Powered by Mice on Treadmills

I still find it fascinating to learn how early electrical engineers went to great lengths to generate electricity before the widespread availability of batteries and generators. One of the most ingenious methods was using mice running on treadmills to power early electrical devices.

The Need for Portable Sources of Electricity in the 18th Century

In the late 18th century, scientists and engineers like Alessandro Volta were conducting groundbreaking experiments with electricity. However, they encountered a major challenge - how to produce electricity reliably for extended periods of time.

Batteries capable of generating electricity for more than a few minutes at a time had not yet been invented. Other early options like Leyden jars could store brief static charges, but could not provide sustained power. There was a growing need for portable sources of electricity to conduct experiments and demonstrations.

Engineers got creative in devising ways to generate electricity using mechanical systems. One of the most fascinating solutions was using mice running on treadmills to drive electrical generators. As silly as it sounds, using mouse-power provided a consistent source of energy that enabled new electrical systems to be tested and displayed.

How Mouse-Powered Generators Worked

The basic premise behind mouse-powered electricity generation is simple:

To build a working mouse-powered generator, engineers had to figure out how to:

The more mice running at once, the more electricity could be produced. Some systems involved dozens of mice powering a single generator.

Early Demonstrations of Mouse-Powered Electricity

One of the earliest public displays of mouse-powered electricity was by Italian physicist Giuseppe Zamboni in or around 1787. Zamboni generated static electricity using hundreds of metal discs pressed together in a device called a "dry pile".

To power the rotation mechanism for his dry pile, Zamboni used mice running on a treadmill. He would exhibit the mice powering electric discharge in his public lectures. This helped convince skeptical audiences that the effects were not tricks or illusions.

Robert Anderson, a Scottish scientist, built one of the largest mouse-powered generators in 1830s Britain. He connected over 100 mice running on treadmills to a large generator that produced enough electricity for chemical decomposition of water into hydrogen and oxygen.

These experiments demonstrated that mouse labor could indeed be harnessed as a consistent source of renewable energy. Of course, electrochemical batteries and steam engines soon provided superior sources of portable electricity, rendering mouse generators obsolete. But the ingenuity behind these early systems is still impressive.

My Attempt to Recreate a Mouse-Powered Generator

To better understand this peculiar technique, I decided to recreate a basic mouse-powered generator using simple materials:

I introduced 2 mice into the bin and they began running on the spool to reach the food. The spool rotation was transmitted to the DC motor, producing enough power to lightly glow the LED bulb. While far from an optimal design, this simple demonstration gave me an appreciation for the ingenuity it took to develop the original mouse generators.

The Legacy of Mouse-Powered Electricity

While no longer a practical source of electricity, mouse-powered generators helped pioneer the field of electrochemistry and electromagnetism. The dedication of these early electrical engineers to experiment with novel solutions like mouse labor played a vital role in advancing our scientific understanding.

Furthermore, these devices were early predecessors of renewable energy from biological sources. Modern bioenergy systems now use organic matter like plants or animal waste to generate usable electricity on a much larger scale. So in a sense, the humble mouse treadmills helped lay the groundwork for sustainable energy solutions that are still important today.

Even as batteries and generators rendered it obsolete centuries ago, the concept of generating electricity from mice running on treadmills remains one of the more fascinating curiosities in the history of electrical engineering. It illustrates the great lengths early scientists went to further their discoveries and demonstrates that electricity can be sourced from almost anything, even small rodents!