Aluminum: The Modern Metal
On this date in 1886, Charles Martin Hall used an economical method to produce aluminum for the first time.
Here are some things you may not have known about it.
Aluminum is the third most common element in the Earth’s crust, and the most common metal. Aluminum compounds occur naturally, and have been used in clay pottery for thousands of years. However aluminum proved difficult to isolate because of its high affinity for oxygen. Metallic aluminum never occurs in nature.
In the first half of the 19th century, scientists made strides in isolating aluminum, but the process remained difficult. At the time, aluminum was a semiprecious metal with a price comparable to silver. It was so highly regarded that a six-pound pyramid of aluminum was used as the tip of the Washington Monument, which was completed in 1884.
Charles Martin Hall was born in 1863 in Ohio. While attending Oberlin College, he attended a lecture on aluminum. The professor, Frank Fanning Jewett, touted the possibilities of the metal as a material and as a way for the person who commercialized the production to make a fortune.
Over the course of the next three years, Hall, along with his sister Julia Brainerd Hall, conducted experiments but found no success.
In 1886, using a system in which an electrical current is passed through molten aluminum oxide dissolved in cryolite, Hall discovered several small accumulations of shiny metal at the bottom of crucible. He took them to Professor Jewett, who confirmed it was aluminum.
At almost the same time in France, Paul Heroult made the same discovery. The process is now known as the Hall-Heroult process.
Hall was awarded the U.S. patent for the process and went on to form the Aluminum Company of America, which became Alcoa.
Just as Jewett predicted, Hall became wealthy by his discovery. He served as a trustee of Oberlin College, which erected a statue of him, fittingly made of aluminum. Because of its light weight, the statue was frequently stolen as a student prank. It’s now glued to a large granite block inside a science building on campus.
Hall died in 1914 at the age of 51.
Aluminum became the first metal to come into widespread use since iron in prehistory, and it’s the most widely used non-ferrous metal. Almost 59 million metric tons of aluminum were produced in 2016.
If you’re not located in North America, you’re probably annoyed by my pronunciation of aluminum. In the rest of the English-speaking world, the metal is referred to as aluminium. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first word used to refer to the element was alumium. The man who discovered aluminum used the now-North American word, but it was rejected by the British in favor of a construction similar to other then-newly discovered elements like potassium, sodium and magnesium.
Our question: What country produces the most aluminum today?
Today is National Day in Brunei.
It’s unofficially National Chili Day, Play Tennis Day and National Banana Bread Day.
It’s the birthday of composer George Handel, who was born in 1685; civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who was born in 1868; and comedian Aziz Ansari, who turns 34.
Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.
This week in 1977, the top song in the U.S. was “New Kid in Town” by The Eagles.
The No. 1 movie was “Rocky,” while the novel “Trinity” by Leon Uris topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.
Weekly question: Who is the most prolific inventor, in terms of total number of patents?
Submit your answer at triviapeople.com/test and we’ll add the name of the person with the first correct answer to our winner’s wall … at triviapeople.com. We’ll have the correct answer on tomorrow’s episode.
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