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Only a few years after the first white globule of aluminium was isolated by Wohler (1846), the metal was being manufactured - from 1855 - though at the high cost of thirty-two dollars per pound. Thirty years later, though aluminium was being produced at reduced the cost, the price was still fifteen dollars per pound. Nevertheless, potential uses for the new metal were receiving great interest, as shown by the address below, delivered to the Scranton Board of Trade on 18 January 1886. It was less than a month after this address that Charles M. Hall, a young U.S. chemist produced his first beads of aluminium, separated from its ore by the new electrolytic process which revolutionized its manufacture, and created a new industry capable of making aluminium both plentiful and inexpensive. By 1914, Hall's process had brought the cost of aluminium down to 18 cents a pound.

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From Scientific American Supplement (6 Mar 1886)


Annual address delivered by President J.A. Price before the meeting of the Scranton Board of Trade, Monday, January 18, 1886

[p.8482] Iron is the basis of our civilization. Its supremacy and power it is impossible to overestimate; it enters every avenue of development, and it may be set down as the prime factor in the world’s progress. Its utility and its universality are hand in hand, whether in the magnificent iron steamship of the ocean, the network of iron rail upon land, the electric gossamer of the air, or in the most insignificant articles of building, of clothing, and of convenience. Without it, we should have miserably failed to reach our present exalted station, and the earth would scarcely maintain its present population; it is indeed the substance of substances. It is the Archimedean lever by which the great human world has been raised. Should it for a moment forget its cunning and lose its power, earthquake shocks or the wreck of matter could not be more disastrous. However axiomatic may be everything that can be said of this wonderful metal, it is undoubtedly certain that it must give way to a metal that has still greater proportions and vaster possibilities. Strange and startling as may seem the assertion, yet I believe it nevertheless to be true that we are approaching the period, if not already standing upon the threshold of the day, when this magical element will be radically supplanted, and when this valuable mineral will be as completely superseded as the stone of the aborigines. With all its apparent potency, it has its evident weaknesses; moisture is everywhere at war with it, gases and temperature destroy its fiber and its life, continued blows or motion crystallize and rob it of its strength, and acids will devour it in a night. If it be possible to eliminate all, or even one or more, of these qualities of weakness in any metal, still preserving both quantity and quality, that metal will be the metal of the future.

The coming metal, then, to which our reference is made is aluminum, the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust. Of all substances, oxygen is the most abundant, constituting about one-half; after oxygen comes silicon, constituting about one-fourth, with aluminum third in all the list of substances of the composition. Leaving out of consideration the constituents of the earth’s center, whether they be molten or gaseous, more or less dense as the case may be, as we approach it, and confining ourselves to the only practical phase of the subject, the crust, we find that aluminum is beyond question the most abundant and the most useful of all metallic substances.

It is the metallic base of mica, feldspar, slate, and clay. Professor Dana says: “Nearly all the rocks except limestones and many sandstones are literally ore-beds of the metal aluminum.” It appears in the gem, assuming a blue in the sapphire, green in the emerald, yellow in the topaz, red in the ruby, brown in the emery, and so on to the white, gray, blue, and black of the slates and clays. It has been dubbed “clay metal” and “silver made from clay;” also when mixed with any considerable quantity of carbon becoming a grayish or bluish black “alum slate.”

This metal in color is white and next in luster to silver. It has never been found in a pure state, but is known to exist in combination with nearly two hundred different minerals. Corundum and pure emery are ores that are very rich in aluminum, containing about fifty-four per cent. The specific gravity is but two and one-half times that of water; it is lighter than glass or as light as chalk, being only one-third the weight of iron and one-fourth the weight of silver; it is as malleable as gold, tenacious as iron, and harder than steel, being next the diamond. Thus it is capable of the widest variety of uses, being soft when ductility, fibrous when tenacity, and crystalline when hardness is required. Its variety of transformations is something wonderful. Meeting iron, or even iron at its best in the form of steel, in the same field, it easily vanquishes it at every point. It melts at 1,300 degrees F., or at least 600 degrees [p.8483] below the melting point of iron, and it neither oxidizes in the atmosphere nor tarnishes in contact with gases. The enumeration of the properties of aluminum is as enchanting as the scenes of a fairy tale.

Before proceeding further with this new wonder of science, which is already knocking at our doors, a brief sketch of its birth and development may be fittingly introduced. The celebrated French chemist Lavoisier, a very magician in the science, groping in the dark of the last century, evolved the chemical theory of combustion—the existence of a “highly respirable gas,” oxygen, and the presence of metallic bases in earths and alkalies. With the latter subject we have only to do at the present moment. The metallic base was predicted, yet not identified. The French Revolution swept this genius from the earth in 1794, and darkness closed in upon the scene, until the light of Sir Humphry Davy’s lamp in the early years of the present century again struck upon the metallic base of certain earths, but the reflection was so feeble that the great secret was never revealed. Then a little later the Swedish Berzelius and the Danish Oersted, confident in the prediction of Lavoisier and of Davy, went in search of the mysterious stranger with the aggressive electric current, but as yet to no purpose. It was reserved to the distinguished German Wohler, in 1827, to complete the work of the past fifty years of struggle and finally produce the minute white globule of the pure metal from a mixture of the chloride of aluminum and sodium, and at last the secret is revealed—the first step was taken. It took twenty years of labor to revolve the mere discovery into the production of the aluminum bead in 1846, and yet with this first step, this new wonder remained a foetus undeveloped in the womb of the laboratory for years to come.

Returning again to France some time during the years between 1854 and 1858, and under the patronage of the Emperor Napoleon III., we behold Deville at last forcing Nature to yield and give up this precious quality as a manufactured product. Rose, of Berlin, and Gerhard, in England, pressing hard upon the heels of the Frenchman, make permanent the new product in the market at thirty-two dollars per pound. The despair of three-quarters of a century of toilsome pursuit has been broken, and the future of the metal has been established.

The art of obtaining the metal since the period under consideration has progressed steadily by one process after another, constantly increasing in powers of productivity and reducing the cost. These arts are intensely interesting to the student, but must be denied more than a reference at this time. The price of the metal may be said to have come within the reach of the manufacturing arts already.

A present glance at the uses and possibilities of this wonderful metal, its application and its varying quality, may not be out of place. Its alloys are very numerous and always satisfactory; with iron, producing a comparative rust proof; with copper, the beautiful golden bronze, and so on, embracing the entire list of articles of usefulness as well as works of art, jewelry, and scientific instruments.

Its capacity to resist oxidation or rust fits it most eminently for all household and cooking utensils, while its color transforms the dark visaged, disagreeable array of pots, pans, and kitchen implements into things of comparative beauty. As a metal it surpasses copper, brass, and tin in being tasteless and odorless, besides being stronger than either.

It has, as we have seen, bulk without weight, and consequently may be available in construction of furniture and house fittings, as well in the multitudinous requirements of architecture. The building art will experience a rapid and radical change when this material enters as a component material, for there will be possibilities such as are now undreamed of in the erection of homes, public buildings, memorial structures, etc. etc., for in this metal we have the strength, durability, and the color to give all the variety that genius may dictate.

And when we take a still further survey of the vast field that is opening before us, we find in the strength without size a most desirable assistant in all the avenues of locomotion. It is the ideal metal for railway traffic, for carriages and wagons. The steamships of the ocean of equal size will double their cargo and increase the speed of the present greyhounds of the sea, making six days from shore to shore seem indeed an old time calculation and accomplishment. A thinner as well as a lighter plate; a smaller as well as a stronger engine; a larger as well as a less hazardous propeller; and a natural condition of resistance to the action of the elements; will make travel by water a forcible rival to the speed attained upon land, and bring all the distant countries in contact with our civilization, to the profit of all. This metal is destined to annihilate space even beyond the dream of philosopher or poet.

The tensile strength of this material is something equally wonderful, when wire drawn reaches as high as 128,000 pounds, and under other conditions reaches nearly if not quite 100,000 pounds to the square inch. The requirements of the British and German governments in the best wrought steel guns reach only a standard of 70,000 pounds to the square inch. Bridges may be constructed that shall be lighter than wooden ones and of greater strength than wrought steel and entirely free from corrosion. The time is not distant when the modern wonder of the Brooklyn span will seem a toy.

It may also be noted that this metal affords wide development in plumbing material, in piping, and will render possible the almost indefinite extension of the coming feature of communication and exchange—the pneumatic tube.

The resistance to corrosion evidently fits this metal for railway sleepers to take the place of the decaying wooden ties. In this metal the sleeper may be made as soft and yielding as lead, while the rail may be harder and tougher than steel, thus at once forming the necessary cushion and the avoidance of jar and noise, at the same time contributing to additional security in virtue of a stronger rail.

In conductivity this metal is only exceeded by copper, having many times that of iron. Thus in telegraphy there are renewed prospects in the supplanting of the galvanized iron wire—lightness, strength, and durability. When applied to the generation of steam, this material will enable us to carry higher pressure at a reduced cost and increased safety, as this will be accomplished by the thinner plate, the greater conductivity of heat, and the better fiber.

It is said that some of its alloys are without a rival as an anti-friction metal, and having hardness and toughness, fits it remarkably for bearings and journals. Herein a vast possibility in the mechanic art lies dormant—the size of the machine may be reduced, the speed and the power increased, realizing the conception of two things better done than one before. It is one of man’s creative acts.

From other of its alloys, knives, axes, swords, and all cutting implements may receive and hold an edge not surpassed by the best tempered steel. Hulot, director in the postage stamp department, Paris, asserts that 120,000 blows will exhaust the usefulness of the cushion of the stamp machine, and this number of blows is given in a day; and that when a cushion of aluminum bronze was substituted, it was unaffected after months of use.

If we have found a metal that possesses both tensile strength and resistance to compression; malleability and ductility—the quality of hardening, softening, and toughening by tempering; adaptability to casting, rolling, or forging; susceptibility to luster and finish; of complete homogeneous character and unusually resistant to destructive agents—mankind will certainly leave the present accomplishments as belonging to an effete past, and, as it were, start anew in a career of greater prospects.

This important material is to be found largely in nearly all the rocks, or as Prof. Dana has said, “Nearly all rocks are ore-beds of the metal.” It is in every clay bank. It is particularly abundant in the coal measures and is incidental to the shales or slates and clays that underlie the coal. This under clay of the coal stratum was in all probability the soil out of which grew the vegetation of the coal deposits. It is a compound of aluminum and other matter, and, when mixed with carbon and transformed by the processes of geologic action, it becomes the shale rock which we know and which we discard as worthless slate. And it is barely possible that we have been and are still carting to the refuse pile an article more valuable than the so greatly lauded coal waste or the merchantable coal itself. We have seen that the best alumina ore contains only fifty-four per cent. of metal.

The following prepared table has been furnished by the courtesy and kindness of Mr. Alex. H. Sherred, of Scranton.

Blue-black shale, Pine Brook drift 27.36
Slate from Briggs' Shaft coal 15.93
Black fire clay, 4 ft. thick, Nos. 4 and 5 Rolling Mill mines 25.53
First cut on railroad, black clay above Rolling Mill 32.60
G vein black clay, Hyde Park mines 28.67

 It will be seen that the black clay, shale, or slate, has a constituent of aluminum of from 15.93 per cent., the lowest, to 32.60 per cent., the highest. Under every stratum of coal, and frequently mixed with it, are these under deposits that are rich in the metal. When exposed to the atmosphere, these shales yield a small deposit of alum. In the manufacture of alum near Glasgow the shale and slate clay from the old coal pits constitute the material used, and in France alum is manufactured directly from the clay.

Sufficient has been advanced to warrant the additional assertion that we are here everywhere surrounded by this incomparable mineral, that it is brought to the surface from its deposits deep in the earth by the natural process in mining, and is only exceeded in quantity by the coal itself. Taking a columnar section of our coal field, and computing the thickness of each shale stratum, we have from twenty-five to sixty feet in thickness of this metal-bearing substance, which averages over twenty-five per cent. of the whole in quantity in metal.

It is readily apparent that the only task now before us is the reduction of the ore and the extraction of the metal. Can this be done? We answer, it has been done. The egg has stood on end—the new world has been sighted. All that now remains is to repeat the operation and extend the process. Cheap aluminum will revolutionize industry, travel, comfort, and indulgence, transforming the present into an even greater civilization. Let us see.

We have seen the discovery of the mere chemical existence of the metal, we have stood by the birth of the first white globule or bead by Wohler, in 1846, and witnesssed its introduction as a manufactured product in 1855, since which time, by the alteration and cheapening of one process after another, it has fallen in price from thirty-two dollars per pound in 1855 to fifteen dollars per pound in 1885. Thirty years of persistent labor at smelting have increased the quantity over a thousandfold and reduced the cost upward of fifty per cent.

All these processes involve the application of heat—a mere question of the appliances. The electric currents of Berzelius and Oersted, the crucible of Wohler, the closed furnaces and the hydrogen gas of the French manufacturers and the Bessemer converter apparatus of Thompson, all indicate one direction. This metal can be made to abandon its bed in the earth and the rock at the will of man. During the past year, the Messrs. Cowles, of Cleveland, by their electric smelting process, claim to have made it possible to reduce the price of the metal to below four dollars per pound; and there is now erecting at Lockport, New York, a plant involving one million of capital for the purpose.

Turning from the employment of the expensive reducing agents to the simple and sole application of heat, we are unwilling to believe that we do not here possess in eminence both the mineral and the medium of its reduction. Whether the electric or the reverberatory or the converter furnace system be employed, it is surely possible to produce the result.

To enter into consideration of the details of these constructions would involve more time than is permitted us on this occasion. They are very interesting. We come again naturally to the limitless consideration of powdered fuel, concerning which certain conclusions have been reached. In the dissociation of water into its hydrogen and oxygen, with the mingled carbon in a powdered state, we undoubtedly possess the elements of combustion that are unexcelled on earth, a heat-producing combination that in both activity and power leaves little to be desired this side of the production of the electric force and heat directly from the carbon without the intermediary of boilers, engines, dynamos, and furnaces.

In the hope of stimulating thought to this infinite question of proper fuel combustion, with its attendant possibilities for man’s gratification and ambition, this advanced step is presented. The discussion of processes will require an amount of time which I hope this Board will not grudgingly devote to the subject, but which is impossible at present. Do not forget that there is no single spot on the face of the globe where nature has lavished more freely her choicest gifts. Let us be active in the pursuit of the treasure and grateful for the distinguished consideration.

Logo and text from J.A. Price, 'Aluminum', in Scientific American Supplement (6 Mar 1886), Vol. 21, No. 351, logo 8471, text 8482-3. (source)

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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