Today, we try to extract silver from clay. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Have you ever wondered why
the English say aluMINium instead of
alUminum? When Sir Humphry Davy
identified the stuff in 1809 he called it
alumium after its kinship to potash
alum. That word soon became aluminum.
Then, to get a Latin-sounding word, the English put
in an extra letter I. They've called
it aluMINium ever since.
Pure aluminum doesn't occur in nature. It's
chemically bound to other elements. Aluminum oxide,
or bauxite, is the commonest source. It's very hard
to separate aluminum from oxygen. Not 'til 1845 did
a German chemist isolate a pinpoint sample of
In 1854 a French chemist, Henri Deville, invented a
commercial process for extracting aluminum from
bauxite. But his aluminum was still very expensive
-- practically a new precious metal. Napoleon III
commissioned a breastplate, spoons for banquets,
and a baby rattle -- all made of aluminum.
But that was about to change: young Julia Hall
entered Oberlin College in 1880. Two years later
her kid brother Charles joined her. They learned
about aluminum and about electricity. Charles read
Deville's frustrating remark that "every clay bank
is a mine of aluminum and the metal is costly as
silver." On his 21st birthday in 1884, the
newspaper carried an article about the 100-ounce
aluminum pyramid that would form the tip of the
Washington Monument. It went on display at
Tiffany's before it was installed.
So Charles went to work with Julia's help. Maybe
electrolysis would do what chemical separation
hadn't. To do electrolysis at high temperatures, he
hit on the idea of dissolving aluminum oxide in
melted cryolite instead of water. Then he ran an
electric current through it.
The process worked on February 23, 1886. He put a
battery current through the hot mixture, and it
precipitated bits of aluminum the size of marbles.
Two years later Hall joined with a group to form
the Pittsburgh Aluminum Company.
While Charles and Julia Hall were in their
workshop, a French inventor -- Paul Heroult -- was
developing the same process in France. But the most
important problem facing the new industry wasn't
the resulting patent conflict. It was the lack of
any existing market for tons of cheap aluminum.
Finally, in 1893, aluminum teakettles appeared on
the market, and the game was afoot. Gradually this
cheap, lightweight metal found uses everywhere. In
1907 Charles Hall's company changed its name to The
Aluminum Company of America -- Alcoa, for short.
Charles died a multimillionaire when he was only
51. He left a small chest behind at the Alcoa
company. In it, on a felt base, are scattered a
handful of aluminum pellets, produced in 1886 by
the Halls' first success. And Alcoa rightly calls
those worthless little fragments its crown jewels.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds