For many of Saft's employees, the companies of Leclanché and Saft have a single past, based around the factory at Chasseneuil-du-Poitou, France.
However, both companies had a considerable history before coming together. Well before Saft’s founder Victor Herold established the first alkaline-battery factory in France, Georges Leclanché (see box below) created the first French “dry” battery and opened a factory in Paris in 1871, soon after the end of the Second Empire. When Georges Leclanché died in 1882, he left a flourishing business to his brother Maurice and his son. Max, Georges’ son, sought to perfect the battery, but competition increased and the company went into decline. After several changes of shareholders, it was taken over by Fulmen, a lead-battery manufacturer.
In 1938, Fulmen bought a former abattoir in Chasseneuil-du-Poitou to turn it into a factory producing small electrical equipment. Electric batteries were also manufactured there, under the Leclanché brand. This facility was taken over by Saft in 1952, when Saft and Fulmen both belonged to the Compagnie Générale d’électricité (CGE).
In the 1950s, the factory at Chasseneuil-du-Poitou had up to 1,000 employees making dry batteries, the uses for which were multiplying rapidly. The factory was a significant industrial center in a rural part of the country and attracted numerous young people from the local area, with whole families working there in some cases. At the time, the factory was known simply as "Leclanché", or "La Pile" (The Battery).
Saft continued to make batteries for the general public until that aspect of the business was taken over by Bernard Tapie in 1985. In the meantime, in 1965, the Chasseneuil factory was transferred to a site in nearby Poitiers, where it now employs about 700 people. In a nod to its history, the address of the factory is Avenue Georges Leclanché.
Today, Saft’s factory in Poitiers is the largest industrial employer in the area, just as the Chasseneuil factory was in days gone by. The factory no longer makes batteries for the general public but specializes instead in high-technology batteries for aerospace, defense, civil electronics and the marine sector. The R&D teams attached to the factory constantly seek to innovate in order to produce highly specialized batteries for Saft’s customers.
Saft has just fitted customized batteries to a revolutionary icebreaker, the RRS (Royal Research Ship) Sir David Attenborough, for its future role as a research vessel. The ship will run on both diesel and electricity, thanks to the 532 lithium-ion batteries supplied by Saft. When it is running on battery power, the ship will produce less pollution and less noise, two important benefits when observing wildlife. This technology could soon be used on ocean liners, to reduce pollution in ports.
In addition to Poitiers, Saft has two other factories in France, at Nersac near Angoulême, and in Bordeaux, where the company’s main research and development center is also located.
Georges Leclanché, a very young and talented French engineer, invented the first so-called dry battery. In 1866, Leclanché filed a patent for a copper-carbonate battery. He improved his prototype and a year later perfected a manganese-dioxide battery that won a prize at the Paris World Fair.
This battery was quickly taken up by the Belgian telegraph service and the Dutch railways, because it did not deteriorate when idle. By contrast, the batteries that had been produced up to that point constantly consumed metal. Leclanché’s invention allowed the development of inexpensive batteries for uses that did not require a high voltage.
Born in France in 1839 into a family who were opponents of Napoleon III, Leclanché completed part of his studies in London when his parents were in exile, before going to the école Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris, graduating as an engineer in 1860.
Employed by the Chemins de Fer de l’Est railway company, he was not satisfied with the batteries that were available and began his own research. He worked in Belgium for a time and returned to France after the fall of Napoleon III, when he founded the first French battery company, Leclanché-Barbier. He died in 1882, aged just 42.