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Gold-plated Ray-O-Vac Flashlight

Gold-plated commemorative Ray-O-Vac flashlight produced to celebrate production milestone, 1950.
(Museum object #1950.2541)

As a convenient, portable source of electric power, dry cell batteries have been a success for over a hundred years. Much of that success has originated in Wisconsin. This 14-karat gold-plated flashlight was presented to Wisconsin Historical Society Director Clifford L. Lord to celebrate the production of the one billionth Ray-O-Vac "Leak Proof" battery.

On January 17, 1906, several businessmen led by University of Wisconsin graduate James B. Ramsay incorporated a new company in Madison, Wisconsin. Called the French Battery Co., after the country of origin of partner and technical advisor Alfred Landau, the firm began manufacturing zinc-carbon dry cell batteries for telephones and automobiles.

Sales were good in the company's first year, but poor quality control and financial mismanagement threatened to bankrupt the fledgling company. Landau was asked to resign in November 1907 and Ramsay sought the technical assistance of Dr. Charles F. Burgess, founder of the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Wisconsin. This is an early example of the university-industry cooperation that has boosted the success of many Wisconsin businesses.

Burgess gradually helped improve quality and profitability of French Battery Co. products and eventually interested the company in marketing D-cell batteries manufactured by his own Northern Chemical and Engineering Laboratory. In 1914 French began selling Burgess-made flashlights which it called "French Flashers."

A devastating November 1915 fire in a part of the French factory rented to Burgess caused a falling out between Ramsay and Burgess. In 1916 the French Battery Co. ceased buying flashlights and batteries from Burgess and began manufacturing its own. Burgess founded a competing battery company in Madison the following year, eventually relocating it to Freeport, Illinois in 1926.

In 1920 the French Battery Co. finally named the lightning-like cartoon character it had been using to advertise its flashlights: "Mr. Ray-O-Lite." This nickname became the source of several other brand names: Ray-O-Spark for automobile starter batteries and Ray-O-Vac for radio batteries (the vacuum tube amplifier was an essential component of early radios). While the phenomenal growth of the radio market in the mid -1920s powered the company's success, the introduction of plug-in radios in 1927 triggered a precipitous shake-out of the battery industry.

French Battery Co. survived by drastically cutting its prices and building up its flashlight business to offset the loss of the radio market. Although radio batteries represented a dwindling proportion of sales, the brand had become so well known that the company changed its name to the Ray-O-Vac Company in 1934.

Five years later, Ray-O-Vac engineer Herman R. C. Anthony patented the "Leak Proof" battery, which was to sustain the company for more than a decade. A major problem with conventional zinc-carbon batteries was a tendency for the zinc can to swell and leak, often destroying a flashlight in the process. Anthony solved this problem by incorporating a better grade of manganese into the mix and encasing the entire cell in a steel jacket. The result not only prevented leaks, but also increased battery life. When in 1940 the company was able to cut the price of its "Leak Proof" batteries to that of its competitors' conventional batteries, they had a market winner.

During World War II, Ray-O-Vac and its subsidiaries earned eight Army-Navy "E" awards for excellence in production. Once the war ended, the company re-entered the consumer market hard, manufacturing one hundred million "Leak Proof" batteries in 1946. On April 26, 1950, the one billionth Rayovac "Leak Proof" battery rolled off the assembly line.

Each guest at Ray-O-Vac's May 1950 reception to celebrate this milestone received one such personally engraved, Sportsman model flashlight. Lord was an appropriate guest: as Director of the WHS, Lord championed the belief that technological innovation was a driving force in American history, and he was instrumental in acquiring some of the Society's most noteworthy industrial history collections.

Ironically, the success of the "Leak Proof" battery had a down side. Although Ray-O-Vac had manufactured alkaline batteries under contract during WWII, senior management chose not to license this technology after war, relying instead upon the sales strength of its "Leak Proof" design. Despite notable successes in button cell and rechargeable batteries in following decades, Ray-O-Vac has never gained competitive leadership in the alkaline battery line.

After a series of acquisitions intended to diversify the company's consumer products offerings, Ray-O-Vac relocated its corporate headquarters to Atlanta in 2003 and changed its name to Spectrum Brands, Inc. in 2005. In its centennial year of 2006, the company's North American headquarters remains in Madison, and it still operates battery manufacturing plants in Fennimore and Portage, Wisconsin.

[Sources: Mollenhoff, David V. Madison: A History of the Formative Years, 2nd ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003); Ruble, Kenneth D. The Rayovac Story: the First 75 Years (Rayovac Corporation, 1981).]


Posted on March 09, 2006

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  • Business, Technology, & Labor
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