Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In the Beginning

      The collecting of items made of aluminum takes in a lot of territory: the decorative gift ware we love, old aluminum items that preceded these items, aluminum beer cans, aluminum cookware such as Club and others. The list goes on and on.
     We use aluminum every day. It is often unseen or so much part of our life that it is unnoticed, but at one time, its method of extraction was so difficult and expensive that it use was not practical. All that is changed today, all because of one man, Charles Martin Hall.
      However, it was not the background of the aluminum industry that prompted me to search for information but simply an attempt to find any information that would be of interest to hammered aluminum collectors. 
     I was gathering information to include in my second book and was following every lead and somehow stumbled across a small book, Made of Aluminum, by Rosemary Young, Although, out of print, our local library had a copy and today, I find that Amazon is listing a few copies. I found the little book fascinating.
     It was not a strict account of the development of the aluminum industry nor was it a true biography of Charles Martin Hall, the man responsible for that development. Rather, it was more of a historical novel, following Hall’s life from his graduation from Oberlin College to his death December 17, 1914, at the age of fifty-one.
     As mentioned earlier, recovering aluminum from other ores was such a difficult and expensive procedure that aluminum was considered a semiprecious metal. Many inventors were making attempts to discover an efficient method and for over sixty years, all had been stymied in succeeding.
     A statement by a chemistry teacher that whoever found an inexpensive method to recovery aluminum from Bauxite, a rock containing several other minerals, would become wealthy, intrigued Charles Hall, son of a poor Ohio minister. Driven by his desire to be able to make life easier for his parents, Charles began conducting experiments in his laboratory in the family woodshed.
     He succeeded less than a year after his graduation but did not get the instant riches he had hoped for. He needed backers to develop his process. He had to fend off unscrupulous ones and deal with disappointment when promised interest failed to develop.
     While pursuing his dream, he barely supported himself at low paying jobs, had become engaged, but felt he was too poor to support a married life, and continued to search for backers of his extraction process.
     His fiancĂ©e grew tired of waiting and married someone else, and Charles continued his search before finally succeeded in getting the assistance of financier Andrew Mellon and a group of businessmen and founded the Pittsburgh Reduction Company in 1888. 
     Two years later Hall became vice-president of the company, which had its factory at Kensington, Pennsylvania.  In 1907 the company was renamed Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa).
     Hall’s method of using an electrolytic process to extract aluminum from cryolite instead of the prior thermal method is still in use today. Alcoa still preserver the original aluminum nodules that Hall produced in 1886.
      Charles Hall, the desperately poor young man who developed the method of making aluminum join steel as one of the two most important metals in the world, died an extremely wealthy man. His bequests were many and generous. He remembered Oberlin College with a $3 million donation and there in a science building stands a life-size sculpture of Hall, showing him as a young man, poor but healthy and strong. It is made of aluminum. 

So-o, now you know how it became possible to have this metal for the Wendell August Forge to develop into the new industry that has filled our shelves and closets with our chosen collectible! Next post will again show aluminum gift wear and will feature salad sets, following a request from Chuck. If you have any of these you'd like to include as pictures or as a description, we can share that information with our readers.


More history...     The Alcoa link takes one to a site with varied information about the company. Click the "about" button, click "history" and a group of visual options appear. Click on "time machine" and view the oft mentioned baby rattle gift. Click the picture and other pictures with accompanying facts appear. All that you ever wanted to know about aluminum and a lot that you never wanted to know, can be found there.