Monday, 4 June 2012
The Story of Aluminum
In the process of acquiring a couple of Everyland magazines with articles by the author Verrill, I noticed this magazine in the vendor’s virtual storefront. I thought it might be interesting so…/drf
The Story of Aluminum
From the magazine, Industrial Arts and Vocational Education March, 1931. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, June 2012.
READ IT TO YOUR STUDENTS —Inspirational —Tells How a Typical American Boy Achieved Fame and Riches.
“PROFESSOR—I've got it!" exclaimed a young man, bursting excitedly into the private laboratory of the head of the chemistry department of an Ohio college, on the morning of February 23, 1886.
Extending his cupped hand, he proudly exhibited to the astonished professor, half a dozen little globules of a silver-colored metal.
It was no wonder he was excited, or that his excitement was shared by the incredulous professor, for at 22 years of age he had achieved what some of the world's greatest scientists had failed to achieve after half a century of application to the same problem. And where they had enjoyed the facilities of great laboratories, with all manner of scientific equipment, and yet had failed, this 22-year-old American youth had worked out the problem in the woodshed in his backyard, with the crudest kind of equipment.
IT all came about as the result of a chance remark made by Frank Fanning Jewett, his chemistry professor at Oberlin College, one morning during the young man's senior year. In talking with the students in his chemistry class Prof. Jewett made the offhand observation that if anyone should invent a process by which aluminum could be made on a commercial scale, he would not only be a benefactor to the world, but he would also be able to lay up for himself a great fortune.
Serious-minded Charles Martin Hall nudged a classmate and whispered, "I'm going for that metal."
Go for it he did, and in dead earnest. Discovering a cheap method of producing aluminum became an obsession with him. Had he known that he was racing with another young man, across the seas, and had he realized how nearly the two would tie each other, he would scarcely have slept during the next year! As it was, he spent much of his spare time outside of school hours in the college laboratory working doggedly on the problem, for he had read somewhere, that every clay bank was potentially a mine of aluminum, and that the metal was as costly as silver.
But all his application, and all his admitted genius, and all his knowledge of chemistry, seemed of no avail against this aluminum riddle. "Going for it" was one thing, but getting it was quite another. All avenues seemed to lead to failure.
It was not until eight months after he had finished college that he started thinking along an entirely new line. If aluminum could not be extracted inexpensively by the chemical processes with which scientists had been struggling for half a century, and with which he had worked unsuccessfully for so many months, might it not be done by electricity?
That was a new idea. It seemed worth investigating.
Hall knew something of electrolysis and he lost no time in fitting up the woodshed behind his father's house on East College Street, Oberlin, as a laboratory. Borrowing an odd assortment of battery jars and plates from the college laboratory, and buying a small crucible, he set them along the edge of the upper floor of the two-story woodshed, so that he could stand while at work, on the lower steps and oversee both levels. Then he set up a homemade furnace and bellows.
Days were spent—precious days that were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to him had he known it—in constructing crude pieces of apparatus that he had not the small means to purchase.
At last, however, everything was ready for an entirely new experiment.
Melting some cryolite in his little clay crucible, and dissolving some "alumina" (refined aluminum ore) in it, he switched on his batteries and passed the electric current through the molten mass for about two hours.
We can imagine "with what impatience he paced up and down in the woodshed during those two hours!
Finally the time was up and he poured out the molten mass. Alas! There was no aluminum!
However, he was not discouraged. Indeed, it is said of Charles Martin Hall that he was never discouraged for more than a few hours at a time.
He started to think his way into the problem, and it may be observed in passing that Hall never worked at random nor never stumbled onto things— he thought things through. In this instance, he came to the conclusion that there might be some impurities in his clay crucible and they might be affecting the result.
Promptly he constructed a carbon lining for the crucible and he proceeded to repeat the experiment.
Again he waited impatiently for two hours as the current from his makeshift batteries passed through the molten mass.
Could he believe his eyes? There, in the bottom of the crucible, were a number of small globules of aluminum!
Excitedly he called his sisters and showed them the still hot little "buttons" of aluminum. (Some of these are today carefully preserved in the Pittsburgh offices of Aluminum Company of America.)
As soon as these globules, or "buttons," were cool enough to handle, Hall took them in the palm of his hand and hurried to the college, where he burst in upon Professor Jewett with the startling news with which this story opens "Professor—I've got it!"
That day—February 23, 1886—marked the birth of a new metal age— The Age of Aluminum!
Two months later to the day (April 23, 1886) a French chemist, Paul L. T. Heroult (by coincidence also 22 years of age) applied for a French patent on the identical process!
Hall had won by a margin of eight weeks!
A New Industry Is Born
CURIOUSLY enough, after a company had been organized to produce aluminum by Hall's process, one of the first articles made was a teakettle. But this was not chance. Because it was known that aluminum conducted heat so efficiently, and because it was so easy to keep clean and bright, and because it promised to wear forever, Hall and his backers saw that it was an ideal metal for cooking utensils. Thus it was that aluminum got its first big start in the kitchen.
Everybody knows how aluminum cooking utensils took America by storm, and how much they have lightened the drudgery of housework and added to the cleanliness and cheerfulness of our kitchens and the wholesomeness of our meals.
But the usefulness of aluminum was not to be confined to the kitchen. It was destined to invade hundreds of industries and to be used for thousands of purposes.
For example, because of its light weight and excellent electrical conductivity, it began to be used to make cable (with a core of steel wire for greater strength) for conveying electrical current across country. Thousands of miles of aluminum power lines are to be seen today.
When the automobile came along a dozen new uses were found for this light metal which automotive engineers found saved weight and made possible speedier cars. Pistons and connecting rods of aluminum alloys became almost standard in automobile engineering practice. Today, eight out of ten motor car manufacturers use aluminum alloy pistons in their motors.
Close on the heels of the automobile came the airplane, and here aluminum figured from the first as an essential metal. It is the cheapest metal that is light, and at the same time strong enough to stand the stresses and strains of air navigation.
However, these modern miracles of metallurgy were not accomplished with the quality of aluminum which Hall had made in his woodshed laboratory. When aluminum began to be used for industrial purposes, it was found that for some uses it lacked the necessary strength. A research laboratory was established and presently, by combining aluminum with small percentages of other metals, a series of "alloys" was developed. After these alloys had been heat treated they became exceedingly tough and strong —some of them as strong as structural steel.
These alloys contain 95 per cent or more of aluminum, so they preserve all the characteristic lightness and bright color of the parent metal, but they are many times as strong and are now used for the heaviest kind of duty. For example, the bodies of some of the armored motor cars seen on our city streets, are made of strong aluminum alloys. Could any but a stout metal be used for such a purpose?
When railroad and street car companies began to face the necessity of lighter cars and locomotives, so that their trains and trolleys might run on faster schedules to meet the demand for greater speed in transportation, they turned naturally to these strong alloys of aluminum. Roofs, frames and side walls of passenger cars made of rolled sheets and structural shapes of strong aluminum alloys. Drop-forged aluminum driving-rods for connecting the huge driving-wheels of powerful steam locomotives are already beginning to be used, and the time seems not far distant when aluminum will play a big part in speeding up our train and trolley service all over the country, at the same time reducing operating costs for the transportation companies.
From year to year, many other interesting discoveries were made about aluminum. It was found that this bright metal could be ground to a flaky powder and made into paint. At first this flaky powder was mixed with banana oil and used almost exclusively for painting radiators.
But soon paint makers found that it could be mixed with varnish, like any other paint pigment. When this aluminum paint is applied, the minute flakes of metal overlap one another (as revealed by microscopic examination), and form a tough and flexible metallic coat that defies rain, sun, snow or hail.
This was an important discovery, for while people may not want aluminum-colored houses, it has been demonstrated that aluminum paint as a priming coat forms a thin film of metal that protects the wood underneath against moisture changes, and makes the color coats that are put on top wear much longer. Eventually, it is thought, the best grades of lumber may come already "primed" with aluminum paint.
Another interesting discovery was that aluminum could be rolled into foil—some of it so thin that it would take ten sheets to equal the thickness of the paper on which this story is printed!
Because this foil is pure and clean and will not tarnish, and because it is impervious to light or moisture or gases, the manufacturers of food and drug products soon discovered it to be ideal for wrapping their products. Foods may be kept in contact with it indefinitely with perfect safety.
Today aluminum foil is used for wrapping and protecting a wide variety of products—chocolate bars, candy mints, chewing gum, yeast cakes, cheese, tea, film rolls, soap, cigars and cigarettes, to mention a few.
Aluminum is also used for screw caps for jars of vanishing cream, bottles of lotions, and many food and drug products. Aluminum caps (often in color and bearing printed trademarks or designs) are used for sealing bottles of ketchup, pickles, salad dressing, etc., and for capping bottles of proprietary remedies.
Perhaps more interesting still, soft aluminum is made into collapsible tubes for tooth paste, shaving cream and numerous pharmaceutical products.
How little did Charles Martin Hall dream what a contribution he was making to the comfort of life on that February morning when he rushed out of his woodshed laboratory with a few globules of aluminum in his hand and started for Prof. Jewett's laboratory to break the news of his success!
And the end is not yet.
As the skyscrapers in our great cities have pushed their towers higher and higher, the problem of weight has become more and more important. Much metal is used for decorative purposes— for cornices, spandrels, window frames, leaders and gutters, and the like. This has opened up a whole new field for this metal that is only one-third as heavy as the older structural metals, will not rust, tarnish or discolor, and can be rolled or cast or worked into any desired form.
Many modern offices are furnished with aluminum chairs, either left in their natural bright finish or finished to resemble mahogany or walnut. And in many hospitals and sanitariums and railroad dining cars, aluminum chairs are used because they can be lifted so easily and they will stand all sorts of abuse. Col. Lindbergh's "flying office" is equipped with aluminum furniture.
Almost every month now a new use is found for aluminum in some of its forms or alloys. The business that started in an Oberlin, Ohio, woodshed now spreads out over the map of America from Niagara Falls to Bauxite, Arkansas; and from Edgewater, New Jersey, to Oakland, California. In addition to mines, it operates great ore reduction plants, power plants, foundries, rolling mills, tube mills, wire mills, and a variety of fabricating plants, employing nearly 25,000 men and women.
And the Aluminum Age is only in its dawn stage!
All this 'is amazing, when you stop to think that, until Charles Martin Hall discovered how to produce aluminum electrolytically in 1886, this metal which now plays so large a part in our lives, was so expensive that it was regarded almost as a semi-precious metal! Indeed, within the memory of some who will read this story, aluminum sold for $25.00 a pound, whereas it now sells for less than 25 cents a pound, thanks to this Oberlin, Ohio, school-boy—and to the activities of the scientists and engineers of Aluminum Company of America. Imagine being able to buy a $25.00 rug or a $25.00 chair for less than 25 cents!
Of course, Hall's original process has been greatly improved, in the forty-odd years that the research engineers of the aluminum industry have been working on this almost magical metal. Hall himself would be amazed at some of the properties of the aluminum that is now being made, and at the enormous plants producing great aluminum castings and beams and forgings, side by side with airplane propellers, automobile parts, paint pigment, aluminum cable, and tissue-thin foil.
You are probably curious to know whether Hall realized a fortune from his discovery. So few inventors do.
Well, Hall did. When he died in 1914, he was the largest stockholder in the Company and left an estate worth several millions. And the fine thing about it was that he left his stock in the Company to educational and philanthropic causes. One-half was left to Oberlin and another American college, one-sixth to education in the near east and the remainder to philanthropic organizations.
But his greatest legacy was an industry which serves us all, making our work easier and our lives more cheerful and comfortable.
Aluminum Company of America is not the only factor in this fast-growing American industry. It is the largest single factor, and the sole producer of the virgin metal in this country. But there are a number of other important companies making aluminum castings, sheet aluminum for fabrication purposes, and aluminum products of many kinds. Furthermore, considerable foreign-made aluminum is imported.
In order to establish the identity of its own brands, and to build good-will around its name, Aluminum Company of America has created a trade name. That name is made up of three syllables, AL CO A, standing for the beginning letters of the principal words of its name: ALuminum COmpany of America.
ALCOA ALUMINUM is the highest standard in the world.
To all modern developments aluminum is making an important contribution. To some it is absolutely essential. That is why, as we face the future in America, we find ourselves only just crossing the threshold of this wonderful new age—The Aluminum Age!
ALUMINUM COMPANY of AMERICA; Oliver Bldg. Pittsburgh, PA.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.