World's largest scientific society honors the commercialization of aluminum

October 26, 2001

In 1855, pure aluminum was priced at $115 per pound -- more expensive than gold. Napoleon III displayed aluminum cutlery at his banquets, commissioned aluminum equipment for his military and even had an aluminum and gold baby rattle made for his son. By 1893, aluminum was a mere 78 cents per pound, and today the inexpensive metal is used to manufacture 100 billion beverage cans annually.

The American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, will designate the commercialization of aluminum -- made possible by the work of chemist Charles Martin Hall -- a National Historic Chemical Landmark. The ceremony will occur at 11 a.m. on November 2 at the John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional Historical Center, 1212 Smallman Street.

Aluminum compounds have been used for thousands of years in ancient pottery, medicines, dyes and cosmetics. But because aluminum -- the third most abundant element in the earth's crust and its most plentiful metal -- has a high affinity for oxygen and never occurs in its metallic form in nature, it proved difficult to isolate. By 1825, the element had been isolated, but the only way to prepare the metal was through a complex and expensive process.

In 1886, Hall used electrochemistry to unlock the secret to producing aluminum metal from ore -- launching a new industry in North America. The inventor began his search at age 17, five years earlier, when his Oberlin College chemistry professor and mentor, Frank Fanning Jewett, predicted the fortune that awaited the person who devised an economical method for isolating the light, lustrous and non-rusting metal from its oxide ore.

A group of Pittsburgh investors, headed by metallurgist Alfred E. Hunt, agreed to support the commercialization of Hall's process and founded the Pittsburgh Reduction Company. In 1888 Hall, assisted by Arthur Vining Davis, began to produce aluminum in the company's pilot plant on Smallman Street.

"Hall's discovery has revolutionized modern life," said the Society's President Attila Pavlath, who will present a commemorative plaque to mark the event. "But let us not forget that, like so many of today's business ventures, Hall needed investors to finance the commercialization of his process. Today we also salute those Pittsburgh businessmen, lead by Alfred Hunt, for supporting a young man's risky ambition to mass produce a promising metal, but one without a market."

In 1907 the Pittsburgh Reduction Company became the Aluminum Company of America -- Alcoa -- and has grown to become one of the top chemical enterprises in the United States. The benefits of aluminum are nearly endless -- from aircraft and power lines to buildings, food packaging and even art.

Robert F. Slagle, Executive Vice President, Human Resources and Communications, will accept the landmark plaque on behalf of Alcoa.

The American Chemical Society established its landmarks program in 1992 to commemorate and preserve landmarks in the history of chemistry and to heighten public awareness of the key role chemistry has played in the history of the United States and nations around the world. More than 35 places, discoveries and devices have achieved landmark status since the program's inception.

The landmarks program will soon launch a new Web site -- chemistry.org/landmarks -- designed for teachers, students, and the general public. The site will feature aluminum and Hall's achievement, descriptions of other chemical landmarks, historic photographs, and interactive elements.
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American Chemical Society

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