I read a lot. At my worst (best?) I was going through a book every two or three days. Left alone, I will read the instructions on a can of soup (in both languages, if that’s all the written material I have available to me). No matter how many books I read, some of them have touched me so deeply that they have become part of my life and way of thinking.

In 1983, Robert Anton Heinlein published Friday, a story about a genetically engineered person, considered artificial by the general populace. Artificial humans are widely resented, and much of the story deals with Friday’s struggle both against prejudice and to conceal her enhanced attributes from other humans. While the plot revolved mostly around this “othering” and the Balkanization of North America (a topic for another day, gentle reader) there was another character whose story captured my imagination. His name was Daniel Thomas Shipstone, and he invented a better battery.

We don’t actually meet Daniel as a part of the plot, we only learn of him because Friday is obliged to research the Shipstone family of companies. There is a line in it that explains the root of the energy problem:

Those who spoke of “energy scarcity” and of “conserving energy” simply did not understand the situation. The sky was “raining soup”: what was needed was a bucket in which to carry it.

Building a better battery would literally change the world.

Now, let’s put reading this book in historical context. We experienced oil crises in 1973 (an embargo) and again in 1979 (a small drop in oil production that yielded a significant cost increase). I was raised in the province of Quebec, home of a large number of hydroelectric projects, but most notably the James Bay Project that negatively impacted the Cree, Inuit, and environment of the northern parts of the province for the benefit of the people living closest to the US border. Seated in this context, the question of energy politics was a big one for me, and one which didn’t seem to have any clear answers.

In walks Heinlein, and he observes that there is no energy crisis. We are surrounded by more energy than we could ever use, every single day. Our only challenge is that no one could figure out how to harness the constant, limitless energy blasted at us from the sun.

We needed a better battery.

I was angry that it was that simple. I was excited that it was that simple. I was studying pure and applied sciences, thinking that I might emerge with a degree in an obscure branch of geology. No, not the one that would win me lucrative contracts out in the oil sands, I wanted one that pointed towards minerals and crystallography, where no money was to be made. Just in case you’re wondering, this isn’t the crystal thing where I tell you that amethyst geodes will remove negative energy from your space or some such. Crystallography is the study of atomic and molecular structure. Crystallographers want to know how the atoms in a material are arranged in order to understand the relationship between atomic structure and properties of these materials.

I figured crystallography was a good direction to start exploring possible answers to the battery question. Failing that, the images were breathtaking art (at least to me).

Two quick sidebars, if you want to go chase them:

  1. An article for you to read: Through the Crystal Ball: The Role of Crystallography and Other Structural Science in COVID-19 Therapies. I had no idea that this field would expand to so many other purposes… I was just wondering about a battery, and have since walked a different path; and
  2. A BBC Radio 4 show on Crystallography, wherein Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history and achievements of crystallography, a scientific discipline that has revolutionised our understanding of the world.

Job Search

Even before I finished reading Friday, I told myself that if I could even find the real-life equivalent of the Shipstone company, I’d pledge my service right away. If I could be a small part in cracking a clean, efficient energy solution for the planet, I would count my life well-lived.

Unfortunately, 1983 was thirty-eight years ago. Michael Jackson was singing Thriller then, and he is dead now. Madonna was singing Lucky Star then, and is still cranking out albums. I never quite found my Shipstone job posting, but I still keep an eye out.

Telsa solar roofWhen Tesla first spun up, I thought it might be pointed that way, and I was very excited by their solar shingles in combination with the battery storage unit as a way of taking my house off the grid. While I adore the products, the company itself has some serious challenges to work through in terms of how they treat their workforce. More to the point, they weren’t (yet) working the battery problem directly.

There’s an actual Shipstone Corporation in Canada. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one inspired. This Shipstone is green technology corporation focused on the development of energy storage and the integration of renewable energy sources into remote community power systems, and in industrial settings reliant on diesel generators for power supply. Nice, but not quite what I was looking for.

A Nano Diamond Battery claims to have a revolutionary new battery technology that would allow you to stick a battery in your mobile phone or laptop, and use it for 28,000 years before you need a re-charge … or a Tesla-sized automobile battery which could run your electric car (and use it to power your house on the side) for 90 years before you needed a refuel. It’s a green battery made from recycled intermediate and high level waste using nanotechnology, where the base material of the diamond battery is diamond: the hardest material on the planet

More players are joining the field in search of a battery that is low cost, high energy, high power, very safe, performs well in a variety of temperatures, and has a long linespan (here’s an article showing varies lithium ion types compared on these axes). In 2020, there were quite a few breakthroughs in battery technology, and with so much activity in the field, I have high hopes that we may see some serious advances in the next five years. The rising popularity of electric cars, tradings, boats, and planes is pushing the field to new heights.

Perhaps I will find my Shipstone company in the next few years and start changing the world’s energy equations. While I’m no longer skilled in such way as to support the actual research, I’m sure that there’s something I could do to help bring about my science fiction future. Perhaps a job in the cafeteria? Are there still mailrooms? It won’t really matter to me, as long as we can finally find a way to get cheap, safe power to everyone who needs it.

Excerpt From Friday

Friday by Robert A. HeinleinNow, if you haven’t already read the novel, you might be a bit frustrated to my constant references to Shipstone. To alleviate that frustration and in the hopes of introducing you to one of the many authors who have created worlds I love, I have included an excerpt from Friday relating the history of the Shipstone company as it was revealed to the hero of the story. All rights belong to Robert Anton Heinlein. You can buy a copy at Amazon at this link if you want to read the rest of the novel (which I assure you is a fun read).

“Prometheus, a Brief Biography and Short Account of the Unparalleled Discoveries of Daniel Thomas Shipstone, &S., MA., Ph.D., LL.D., L.H.D., and of the Benevolent System He Founded.”

Thus young Daniel Shipstone saw at once that the problem was not a shortage of energy but lay in the transporting of energy. Energy is everywhere: in sunlight, in wind, in mountain streams, in temperature gradients of all sorts wherever found, in coal, in fossil oil, in radioactive ores, in green growing things. Especially in ocean depths and in outer space energy is free for the taking in amounts lavish beyond all human comprehension.

Those who spoke of “energy scarcity” and of “conserving energy” simply did not understand the situation. The sky was “raining soup”: what was needed was a bucket in which to carry it.

With the encouragement of his devoted wife Muriel (née Greentree), who went back to work to keep food on the table, young Shipstone resigned from General Atomics and became the most American of myth-heroes, the basement inventor. Seven frustrating and weary years later he had fabricated the first Shipstone by hand. What he had found was a way to pack more kilowatt-hours into a smaller space and a smaller mass than any other engineer had ever dreamed of. To call it an “improved storage battery” (as some early accounts did) is like calling an H-bomb an “improved firecracker.” What he had achieved was the utter destruction of the biggest industry (aside from organized religion) of the western world.

For what happened next I must draw from the muckraking history and from other independent sources as I just don’t believe the sweetness and light of the company version.

Fictionalized speech attributed to Muriel Shipstone:

“Danny Boy, you are not going to patent the gadget. What would it get you? Seventeen years at the most. . . and no years at all in three-fourths of the world. If you did patent or try to, Edison, and P. G. and E., and Standard would tie you up with injunctions and law suits and claimed infringements and I don’t know what all. But you said yourself that you could put one of your gadgets in a room with the best research team G.A. has to offer and the best they could do would be to melt it down and the worst would be that they would blow themselves up. You said that. Did you mean it?”

“Certainly. If they don’t know how I insert the-“

“Hush! I don’t want to know. And walls have ears. We don’t make any fancy announcements; we simply start manufacturing. Wherever power is cheapest today. Where is that?”

The muckraking author fairly frothed at the “cruel, heartless monopoly” held by the Shipstone complex over the prime necessities of “all the little people everywhere.” I could not see it that way. What Shipstone and his companies did was to make plentiful and cheap what used to be scarce and dear… this is “cruel” and “heartless”?

The Shipstone companies do not have a monopoly over energy. They don’t own coal or oil or uranium or water power. They do lease many, many hectares of desert land . . . but there is far more desert not being cropped for sunshine than the Shipstone trust is using. As for space, it is impossible to intercept even one percent of all the sunshine going to waste inside the orbit of Luna, impossible by a factor of many millions. Do the arithmetic yourself otherwise you’ll never believe the answer.

So what is their crime?


  1. The Shipstone companies are guilty of supplying energy to the human race at prices below those of their competitors; and
  2. They meanly and undemocratically decline to share their industrial secret of the final assembly stage of a Shipstone.

This latter is, in the eyes of many people, a capital offense. My terminal dug out many editorials on “the people’s right to know,” others on “the insolence of giant monopolies,” and other displays of righteous indignation.

The Shipstone complex is mammoth, all right, because they supply cheap power to billions of people who want cheap power and want more of it every year. But it is not a monopoly because they don’t own any power; they just package it and ship it around to wherever people want it. Those billions of customers could bankrupt the Shipstone complex almost overnight by going back to their old ways… burn coal, burn wood, burn oil, burn uranium, distribute power through continent-wide stretches of copper and aluminum wires and/or long trains of coal cars and tank cars.

But no one, so far as my terminal could dig out, wants to go back to the bad old days when the landscape was disfigured in endless ways and the very air was loaded with stinks and carcinogens and soot, and the ignorant were scared silly by nuclear power, and all power was scarce and expensive. No, nobody wants the bad old ways… even the most radical of the complainers want cheap and convenient power. . . they just want the Shipstone companies to go away and get lost.

“The people’s right to know” – the people’s right to know what? Daniel Shipstone, having first armed himself with great knowledge of higher mathematics and physics, went down into his basement and patiently suffered seven lean and weary years and thereby learned an applied aspect of natural law that let him construct a Shipstone.

Any and all of “the people” are free to do as he did: he did not even take out a patent. Natural laws are freely available to everyone equally, including flea-bitten Neanderthals crouching against the cold.

In this case, the trouble with “the people’s right to know” is that it strongly resembles the “right” of someone to be a concert pianist, but who does not want to practice.