Conventional batteries supply electrical energy from the chemical reactants stored within them; when these reactants are consumed, the battery is “dead”. An alternative approach would be to feed the reactants into the cell as they are required, so as to permit the cell to operate continuously. In this case the reactants can be thought of as “fuel” to drive the cell, hence the term fuel cell.
Although fuel cells were not employed for practical purposes until space exploration began in the 1960's, the principle was first demonstrated in 1839 by Sir William Grove, a lawyer and amateur chemist. At the time, it was already known that water could be decomposed into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis; Grove tried recombining the two gases in a simple apparatus, and discovered what he called “reverse electrolysis”: