The most precious metal is the world
Although aluminium is widely used today, it wasn’t as popular when it was first produced. For almost 100 years, aluminium was too expensive to be widely adopted. While it did find its way onto a few royal dinner tables in the 1800s, it wasn’t until the 1900s that it became popular as an industrial material. GG VAN ROOYEN tracks aluminium’s rocky road to success.
Aluminium as we know it today hasn’t been around for very long; only since the late 19th century, in fact. But it has been used with other compounds for far longer. Evidence suggests that in Persia, as far back as 4 000 years before the common era (BCE) cooking pots were made from clay that was rich in aluminium silicates. By 2 000 BCE, aluminium compounds were used as fabric dyes and cosmetics in both ancient Egypt and Babylonia.
Aluminium in a form close to the one we have today may even have been invented by
the Romans at the start of the common era (CE). Gaius Plinius Secundus – more commonly known as Pliny the Elder – was a Roman author, naturalist, philosopher and naval commander who lived from 23CE to 79CE. When not commanding ships of war, Pliny spent his time studying natural phenomena and, towards the end of his life, wrote an encyclopaedic work on natural history called Naturalis Historia. This document – one of the largest single works to have survived from Roman times to the modern day – became a model for all similar subsequent scholarly undertakings.
While much of Pliny’s ruminations focus on topics such as geography, zoology, botany and pharmacology, there is one entry that is particularly fascinating to those interested in the history of aluminium. In Naturalis Historia, Pliny wrote:
“One day a goldsmith in Rome was allowed to show the Emperor Tiberius a dinner plate of a new metal. The plate was very light, and almost as bright as silver. The goldsmith told the Emperor that he had made the metal from plain clay. He also assured the Emperor that only he, himself, and the Gods knew how to produce this metal from clay. The Emperor became very interested, and as a financial expert he was also a little concerned. The Emperor sensed immediately that all his treasures of gold and silver would decline in value if people started to produce this bright metal of clay. Therefore, instead of giving the goldsmith the regard expected, he ordered him to be beheaded.”
GOOD AS GOLD
Is Pliny’s story true? Did a lowly Roman goldsmith invent aluminium? We’ll never know and, to be honest, it seems unlikely. What is certain, though, is that Pliny’s words proved to be prophetic. When aluminium was officially invented in the 1800s, the novelty of this new substance quickly transformed it into the most precious metal in the world.
When Emporer Napoleon III hosted the King of Siam in the mid-1800s, he didn’t make use of gold plates and cutlery – as was the custom – but instead used utensils made of aluminium. The reason for this was simple: because it was difficult to produce aluminium at the time, the metal was more expensive than gold and therefore more befitting of emperors and kings. At the Paris Exhibition in 1855, a bar of aluminium was displayed as “The New Precious Metal”.
While, at that time, the cost of producing aluminium had turned the metal into a very precious substance, it was nevertheless clear that its unique properties made it ideal for industrial applications. Provided that a cheaper way of producing aluminium could be found, it could revolutionise a host of industries including transport and construction.
In 1857 Charles Dickens wrote: “Within the course of the last two years a treasure has been divined, unearthed and brought to light. What do you think of a metal as white as silver, as unalterable as gold, as easily melted as copper, as tough as iron; a metal that is malleable, ductile, and with the singular quality of being lighter than glass? Such a metal does exist, and that in considerable quantities on the surface of the globe. The advantages to be derived from a metal endowed with such qualities are easy to be understood. Its future place as a raw material in all sorts of industrial applications is undoubted, and we may expect soon to see it, in some shape or other, in the hands of the civilised world at large.”
Jules Verne, the father of modern science fiction, also recognised the metal’s potential. In his 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, his characters craft their spaceship from aluminium.
“This valuable metal possesses the whiteness of silver, the indestructibility of gold, the tenacity of iron, the fusibility of copper, the lightness of glass. It is easily wrought, is very widely distributed, forming the base of most of the rocks, is three times lighter than iron, and seems to have been created for the express purpose of furnishing us with the material for our projectile,” wrote Verne.
A SLOW START
But despite its evident potential, aluminium simply could not be produced at a rate or
price that would make its industrial use viable. The problem was this: scientists did not
know how to efficiently decompose minerals that contained the metal. Although the first pure aluminium had been successfully produced in 1825 by Danish scientist, Hans Christian Øersted, his process was prohibitively time-consuming and expensive. By the late 1800s, no one had yet come up with a way to inexpensively produce the metal on a massive scale.
To be sure, progress was made. In 1854 a Frenchman named Sainte-Claire Deville improved upon Øersted’s process, making aluminium production much easier. The process was further improved in 1885 by an American, Hamilton Y Cassner, increasing annual global aluminium production to a somewhat underwhelming 15 tons. But in terms of cost, aluminium still couldn’t compete with steel and so wasn’t widely adopted by industry. As a result, demand for the metal fell rapidly and its price plummeted. An ounce of aluminium was no longer worth its weight in gold.
Yearly output would have to increase exponentially before the new metal could truly make its mark on the world.
THE AGE OF ALUMINIUM
The breakthrough finally came in 1886 when two young scientists, Paul Louis Toussaint Héroult and Charles Martin Hall, independently discovered a technique that transformed aluminium production forever, forming the basis of a production process that has endured to this very day. It entailed dissolving aluminium oxide in a bath of molten cryolite and passing a powerful electric current through it, leaving molten aluminium at the bottom.
Creating large quantities of aluminium relatively cheaply was suddenly possible; the age of aluminium had arrived. By 1888 aluminium companies had been established in the United States, France and Switzerland. In just over a decade, annual global output of the metal had sky-rocketed to 8 000 tons. Today, between 30 and 40 million tons of aluminium are produced each year. Because of its unique properties – including its light weight, durability, malleability and resistance to corrosion – a use has been found for aluminium within virtually every industry that exists.
While the wonder metal is no longer as valuable as gold, it is quite literally reshaping our culture. It has become one of the defining materials of our age, much as iron and bronze defined the eras in which they became widely used. Without aluminium, many modern inventions would simply not exist. When future archaeologists search for remnants of our civilization in times to come they will find aircraft, cars, cans, windows, consumer electronics, cooking utensils and sports equipment made of aluminium. They might even find a couple of spoons and plates.