One hundred and twenty-five years ago this month, Charles Martin Hall discovered a method by which to produce aluminum commercially - transforming it from a precious metal to an everyday material. It was a development that would change the course of human history. Aluminum would revolutionize food and beverage packaging, make possible the wonders of space exploration and modern aviation, transform the construction industry and reduce tail-pipe emissions in cars and trucks.
Even before Hall’s discovery, savvy minds knew of aluminum’s great potential. Frank Jewett, Hall’s Oberlin College chemistry professor, told his students, “Any person who discovers a process by which aluminum can be made on a commercial scale will bless humanity and make a fortune for himself."
Inspired, Hall began experimenting in a woodshed behind his parents’ rural Ohio house, which culminated in his discovery of the electrolytic reduction method for producing primary aluminum. He was just 22 years old.
By passing an electric current through a carbon crucible filled with a cryolite bath containing alumina, he produced a congealed mass within which was pure aluminum. That same process is used to this day by aluminum companies to produce aluminum from ore.
Hall patented his process, founded the Pittsburgh Reduction Co., the precursor to today’s Alcoa, and manufactured aluminum cookware, which helped establish a nascent market for the metal.
According to the Aluminum Association, Arlington, Va., the qualities that make aluminum sought after as a product material include its high strength-to-weight ratio, resistance to corrosion, durability, conductivity, formability and recyclability.
“Almost three-quarters of all aluminum ever manufactured is still in use," says Steve Larkin, association president.