February 23, 1886: Charles M Hall, separates aluminum from its ore. Hall was born in Ohio in 1863 after his missionary parents were forced to return from overseas service due to the US Civil War. His mother taught him to read early and by age six he was using his father’s 1840s college chemistry book as a reader. He began public school at age eight and quickly progressed. He carried out scientific experiments in family’s shed. At the age of 16 he enrolled at Oberlin College. There he met professor Frank Fanning Jewett who was interested in aluminum extraction. Hall’s initial experiments with aluminum were in 1881. He worked on the problem, once again using the family shed as a laboratory.
Hall was forced to fabricate most of his own equipment for his studies. One of his sisters, Julia Brainerd Hall, helped him with his research. They eventually found a process to produce aluminum cheaply by running an electric current through a bath of alumina dissolved in cryolite. Hall filed for his first patent on July 9, 1886. The process was discovered at nearly the same time by Frenchman Paul Héroult and has come to be called the Hall-Héroult process. Hall sought out financial backing in Pittsburgh via metallurgist Alfred E Hunt. They formed the Reduction Company of Pittsburgh and opened the first large-scale aluminum production plant. The company changed names, first to Aluminum Company of America and then to Alcoa.
The Hall-Héroult process was so effective, it reduced the price of aluminum by a factor of 200, making it an affordable alternative for many uses. The apex of the Washington Monument was made of aluminum and at the time of its construction (1884), it was as valuable a metal as silver. In 1900, about 8,000 tons of aluminum were produced. Today, more aluminum is produced than all other non-ferrous metals combined. Aluminum was the first metal to attain widespread use since the prehistoric discovery of iron. Hall is considered to be the originator of the American spelling of aluminium, the British spelling, when he made a misspelling in a handbill. Aluminum makes up about 8% by weight of the Earth’s solid surface. The ability to extract if cheaply from the ore was the problem.
Hall continued to do research and was granted 22 US patents over his lifetime, most of them regarding aluminum production. He served on the Oberlin College Board of Trustees. He was vice-president of Alcoa until his death at age 51. He was unmarried and childless and left most of his money to charity. Today, Alcoa is headquartered in Lever House, Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Klaus Kleinfeld is the chairman and CEO. They not only deal with aluminum but also include products made with titanium and nickel as well. Their operating income from 2014 was $1.2 billion with a revenue of $23 billion. They employ 60,000 people.
Aluminium’s sixty-year reign as the world’s most precious substance was glorious, but soon an American chemist ruined everything. – Sam Kean
Mr. Hall revealed that probably his chief ambition in life was to make some discovery which would be revolutionary with regard to the present conception of the constitution of matter and which would be of immense benefit to mankind. – Arthur V Davis
Consciously and subconsciously, he was still working on the problem of producing cheap aluminum. Hall was at heart . . . a tireless experimenter. – Julius Edwards
Alcoa’s lightweight aluminum helped revolutionize the automotive and aviation industries; aluminum foil eased the lives of housewives everywhere. Demand for Hall’s aluminum led to production soaring from 10,000 pounds in the company’s first year to 15 million by 1907. – Alcoa.com
Also on this day: The Rotary Club – In 1905, the Rotary Club was formed.
Cato Conspiracy – In 1820, the plot to kill British cabinet members was exposed.
Gutenberg Bible – In 1455, the Gutenberg Bible was published.
ISO – In 1947, a new set of standards were adopted.
Tootsie – In 1896, the Tootsie Roll was introduced.