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Riches to rags

Certain elements (gold, silver) haven’t gone out of fashion in millennia, and probably never will. Others seem unlikely to ever win popularity with the public (hello, praseodymium). Still other elements languished for decades as literal dirt before zooming to prominence recently (silicon), while some debuted brilliantly but have slowly dwindled in esteem ever since (glow-in-the-dark radium, for instance, was widely drunk as a “health” tonic in the early 1900s, despite being frighteningly radioactive). But no element on the periodic table has had quite as strange a ride as aluminium.

A number of brilliant chemists devoted their careers to aluminium throughout the 1800s, and it’s hard to judge whether the element was better or worse off afterwards. A Danish chemist and a German chemist simultaneously extracted this metal from the ancient astringent alum around 1825. (Alum is the powder cartoon characters sometimes swallow that makes their mouths pucker.) Because of its luster, mineralogists immediately classified aluminium as a precious metal, like silver or platinum, worth hundreds of dollars an ounce.

Twenty years later, a Frenchman figured out how to scale up these methods for industry, making aluminium available commercially. For a price. It was still more expensive than even gold. That’s because, despite being the most common metal in the earth’s crust – around eight percent of it by weight, hundreds of millions of times more common than gold – aluminium never appears in pure, mother lode-al form. It’s always bonded to something, usually oxygen. Pure samples were considered miracles. The French once displayed Fort Knox–like aluminium bars next to their crown jewels, and emperor Napoleon III reserved a prized set of aluminium cutlery for special guests at banquets. (Less favoured guests used gold knives and forks.) In the United States, government engineers, to show off their young country’s industrial prowess, capped the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., with a six-pound pyramid of aluminium in 1884. One ounce of shavings from the pyramid would have paid a day’s wages for each of the labourers who erected it.

Aluminium’s sixty-year reign as the world’s most precious substance was glorious, but soon an American chemist ruined
everything. The metal’s properties – light, strong, attractive – tantalised manufacturers. And its omnipresence in the earth’s crust had the potential to revolutionise metal production, if only they could separate it from oxygen in an efficient way. At Oberlin College in Ohio, in the central United States, a chemistry professor named Frank Fanning Jewett would regale his students with tales of the aluminium El Dorado that awaited whoever mastered this element. And at least one of his students had the naïveté to take his professor seriously.

After a stint at Imperial University in Tokyo, Jewett had arrived at Oberlin in the fall of 1880, where he taught undergraduate chemistry and did research on aluminium. He had a solid career as a chemist, but as he later admitted to friends, “My greatest discovery was the discovery of a man.” That “man”, a sixteen-year-old freshman named Charles Hall, had also arrived at Oberlin in the fall of 1880. On or around 15th October, Hall presented himself at the chemistry department, possibly to try to weasel some free supplies out it for his boyhood chemistry lab at home. There, he met Jewett, who proselytised to Hall
about aluminium.

Fired by that encounter in 1880, Hall continued trying to isolate aluminium throughout his undergraduate years, and even beyond. He failed and failed and failed again, but failed a little more smartly each time. Finally, in 1886, while working in his parents’ woodshed, Hall ran an electric current from handmade batteries (power lines didn’t exist) through a molten liquid with dissolved aluminium compounds. The energy from the current zapped and liberated the pure metal, which collected in minute silver nuggets on the bottom of the tank. The process was cheap and easy, and it would work just as well in huge vats as on the lab bench. This had been the most sought-after chemical prize since the philosopher’s stone, and Hall had found it. The “aluminium boy wonder” was just twenty-three.

Hall’s fortune, however, was not made instantly. Chemist Paul Héroult in France stumbled on more or less the same process at the same time. (Today Hall and Héroult share credit for the discovery that crashed the aluminium market.) An Austrian invented another separation method in 1887, and with the competition bearing down on Hall, he quickly founded what became the Aluminum Company of America, or Alcoa, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It turned into one of the most successful business ventures in history.

“Aluminium’s sixty-year reignas the world’s most precious substance was glorious”

Aluminium production at Alcoa grew at exponential rates. In its first months in 1888, Alcoa eked out 50 pounds of aluminium per day; two decades later, it had to ship 88,000 pounds per day to meet the demand. And while production soared, prices plummeted. Years before Hall was born, one man’s breakthrough had dropped aluminium from $550 per pound to $18 per pound in seven years. Fifty years later, not even adjusting for inflation, Hall’s company drove down the price to 25 cents per pound. Such growth has been surpassed probably only one other time in history, during the silicon semiconductor revolution eighty years later. And like our latter-day computer barons, Hall cleaned up. At his death in 1914, he owned Alcoa shares worth $30 million (around $650 million today). More importantly, thanks to Hall, aluminium became the utterly passé metal we all know, the basis for pop cans and pinging Little League baseball bats and airplane bodies. (A little anachronistically, it still sits atop the Washington Monument, too.) It depends on your taste and temperament whether you think aluminium was better off as the world’s most precious or its most productive metal.

Incidentally, Hall is reportedly also the source of the friendly transatlantic spelling disagreement about element thirteen. The British tend to write “aluminium,” while stubborn Americans stick to “aluminum”.

When European chemists in the early 1800s began speculating about the existence of this metal, they used both spellings but eventually settled on the extra i. That spelling paralleled the recently discovered barium, magnesium, sodium, and strontium. When Charles Hall applied for patents on his electric-current process, he used the extra i, too. However, when advertising his shiny metal, Hall was looser with his language. There’s debate about whether cutting the i was intentional or a fortuitous mistake on advertising fliers, but when Hall saw “aluminum”, he thought it a brilliant coinage. He dropped the vowel permanently, and with it a syllable, which aligned his product with classy platinum.

His new metal caught on so quickly and grew so economically important that “aluminum” became indelibly stamped on the American psyche. As always in the United States, money talks.

Sam Kean is the author of ‘The Disappearing Spoon’ (Doubleday). The book is described by the New York Times as “an engaging tour of the elements”.

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