March 9, 2023: It is with sadness that we have to record the death of John Devitt, arguably the key figure in the development of the modern VRLA battery. He passed away, aged 96, on December 7, 2021. He had lost contact with the lead battery industry some five years before and his death, until now, has been unreported.
John was born on September 27, 1925 in Denver, Colorado, a city where he was to spend most of his life. An early aptitude for science — he was making electromagnets at home aged eight — translated into a degree and later a masters in electrical engineering at Cornell university in Denver.
After a spell in the US Navy — he was in the naval reserve from 1943 to 1955 — mostly spent in battery research, he worked as chief engineer for a variety of Denver located companies. A pivotal moment in John’s life was when local manufacturing giant, Gates Rubber Company, then the largest manufacturer of rubber belts and hoses in the world, decided to go into the battery business,
He joined Gates in January 1960. Three months later John with his co-developer Don McLelland submitted a nine-page memo to CEO Charlie Gates called “Lead-Acid Sealed Cells”. The memo was to make history.
In effect Devitt’s proposal recommended the development of a cell that would perform in a manner similar to that of the sealed nickel-cadmium batteries then being sold. It was an idea that John later said had been fermenting in his brain since listening to a presentation about nickel-cadmium batteries five years before. John and McLelland issued the definitive patent in 1972.
Ken Peters, the man who perfected much of the design of later VRLA batteries, described its importance: “The development of gas recombining valve regulated designs has potentially been the most important advance in the development of the lead battery in the last half of the 20th century.
“Offering improved high-rate output, higher specific energy and operating flexibility never previously envisaged, their use in telephone and UPS systems grew quickly replacing previously-used designs in standby applications.
“Within 10 years of the first installation by British Telecom in 1981, 60% of the telephone systems in Western Europe relied upon VRLA batteries for emergency power. Today [in 2006] it must be approaching 100%.”
John, who remained a pioneer in advancing battery storage technology until his late 80s, was honoured over the years with the International Lead Medal, the Gaston Planté award and membership of the Alpha/Beta society.
John was also a friendly and engaging man with great personal charm but would be blunt and direct on technical matters pertaining to batteries. He could also be very humble. He once told this magazine that though he was still learning yet, “Detchko Pavlov [arguably the greatest lead battery electrochemist ever] has an encyclopaedic knowledge of lead and he’s probably forgotten more about the subject than I’ve ever known!”
Mountaineer and musician
Music was a big part of his life. He was an active player in the local jazz scene as an accomplished saxophonist. David Rand, an electrochemical battery veteran, recalls being with him at the gala dinner of the Second Lead Battery Conference in Nice: “The entertainment was poor so I asked John whether he had his saxophone, The answer was ‘yes’ and was welcomed by the local musicians. The rest is history!”
He was also an avid mountaineer and especially fond of the Rockies around where he lived. He was an active member of the Colorado Mountain Club, including serving as president, and was a climbing instructor for many avid climbers in the Colorado mountains.
He spent the last 28 years of his life with his close friend and travel companion, Jeane Sexson. John is survived by his three children, Jane, David and Ellen, 10 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
“One of the legends of the lead battery industry has disappeared for good,” said one commentator. “We may not see men of such like again in our lifetimes.”
John Devitt, electrochemist, 1925-2021.