Sunday, March 6, 2016

Precious aluminum

From the A Little Knowledge department:

Many collectors and dealers are well aware that aluminum is a relatively new metal, and that when first produced, it was considered precious -- more precious, even, than gold. Many fewer, however, are clear on exactly when aluminum became cheap and plentiful -- leading to rather drastic misinterpretations of the original value and nature of early 20th-century aluminum objects.

A bit of digging turned up some good basic aluminum history (links here and here), which incidentally also provide a bit of background on why US usage is "aluminum" while most of the rest of the world prefers "aluminium".

Perhaps the most useful references I found, however, had to do with the famous aluminum capstone of the Washington Monument, in particular George J. Binczewski's "The Point of a Monument: A History of the Aluminum Cap of the Washington Monument", and especially the sidebar entitled "Aluminum's Status in the Mid-1880s". Also of interest is this article on the use of corundum crystals for the capstone, other forms of naturally-occurring aluminum being of insufficient purity.

One of the best short summaries comes from the USGS, in .pdf form; the key excerpt runs as follows:
As late as the early 1880’s, it was considered to be a semiprecious metal and was sold in troy-ounce quantities; the retail price of aluminum metal was reported to be higher than that of silver. A commercially viable large-scale production method had yet to be developed. Domestic production levels during this period were in the 1,000- to 3,000-troy-ounce range, and many uses were considered to be experimental (Mining Engineering, 1987).
In 1886, formal patent applications were filed for the electrolytic reduction process for aluminum. This process, which came to be known as the Hall-Heroult process, led to the mass commercial production of aluminum metal. As the process was developed and refined, production levels increased rapidly. By 1895, domestic production levels had reached 1 million pounds. As production levels continued to increase, domestic producers kept the price of aluminum low to encourage its use by consumers. In the early 1900’s, they held aluminum metal prices at a low steady level to compete against copper in the electrical industry (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1956, p. II.1-II.4).
Some further bits and pieces turned up along the way:
The widespread tale that Pliny describes something suspiciously aluminum-like in antiquity is a fraud: in the words of Laputan Logic,
. . . a carefully constructed myth that was promulgated by Napoleon's very own aluminium guy, Henri-√Čtienne Sainte-Claire Deville, the man founded the world's first commercial aluminium process with the generous support of the Emperor.
For more reliable aluminum history, I am in the process of getting my hands on a copy of the exhibition catalog, Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets; a couple of the essays appear to be reprinted online here and here. [originally published July 22, 2006 at -- some links now broken]

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