Who really did invent the fuel cell principle is disputed. Fact is: A simple test set-up generated an electric current due to the natural tendency of H2 and O2 to form water. The platinum electrodes are acting as catalysts while the dilute acid is the electrolyte between the O2 and H2 filled test tubes. A very small magnitude of current is produced and flows through the external circuit.
It means in effect that fuel cells are electrochemical plants which convert chemical energy directly into electrical energy.
The principle of fuel cells was discovered already in the first half of 19th century. Many authors attribute the discovery of the fuel cell to the English physicist Sir William Robert Grove (1811 to 1896). First known experiments about the fuel cell effect were accomplished by Christian Friedrich Schönbein (1799 to 1868; at that time professor at the University of Basel). He detected a voltage by dipping two platinum wires, which were flowed by hydrogen respectively oxygen, into an electrolyte (probable sulphuric acid). This was published in the January edition 1839 of the «Philosophical Magazine”, which was known to Grove. However in contrary to Schönbein, Grove was a more practice-oriented man: he intended to use the fuel cell effect and designed a «gas battery” between 1842 and 1845.
Towards the end of the 19th century Werner von Siemens (1816 - 1892) discovered the electro-dynamic principle. Due to the rapid development of combustion engines at turn of the century, the fuel cell technology was not able to gain importance and fell into oblivion.
For applications in aerospace and submarines fuel cells were rediscovered in the second half of the 20th century. Because of the relatively high costs, fuel cells (mostly alkali fuel cells AFC) were only used in niche applications. Due to the expectations based on the superior principle on one hand and the ongoing scientific progress on the other, fuel cells have become again a central object of research and development within the last 30 years. First achievements in the commercialisation are made in the last years in the stationary and mobile area as well.