Aluminum: A Journey from Palace Tables to Corn Cans

Aluminum: A Journey from Palace Tables to Corn Cans!

We need some imagination for our topic today. Because today we’re going to take a little trip back in time. Then we get to know one of the richest people in the world in the shortest time. Then we will watch the reign of aluminum collapse.

Let’s start with this first: Let’s say you are a very successful scientist and you heard that you will receive a very, very valuable gift from your work. And yes, the moment you’ve been waiting for has arrived. You are excited to open your package. What is this? Inside is an aluminum sculpture. You say that is it, and you curse both atomic physics and professorship.

Now let’s consider the same scenario, but let’s play with the history a bit. This time we are in the 1850s. Our scientist opens the same package, and suddenly he is blown away with happiness. He looks at the aluminum statue the way Gollum looks at the one ring! Our precious!

Meanwhile, British colleagues presented an aluminum vase to Dmitri Mendeleev, the architect of the periodic table. And this is one of the greatest gifts that could be given at that time.

Mendeleev's photo
Dmitri Mendeleyev

Aluminum in Palace Tables

This ordinary element, which we now use in all areas of our lives, was one of the most valuable elements in the world a hundred and fifty years ago. Even so, Emperor Napoleon the Third had reserved aluminum cutlery set for the very special guests who came to his feasts. Aluminum was so valuable that it even surpassed gold. The emperor made gold cutlery be used for his less important guests.

In 1884, the United States even placed an aluminum pyramid weighing about two kilograms on top of the Washington Monument to show off the wealth of their country.

Photograph of the aluminum at the Washington monument
Washington Monument

So what made aluminum so valuable?

First, let’s look at what makes any element valuable:

What Makes an Element Valuable?

We can examine it under two main headings:

  • Features: Being shiny and malleable. Because if it has these properties, it can be used in jewelry making.
  • Availability: To summarize in one sentence, we can say: “The harder to find something, the more valuable it is.”

For example, gold, diamonds and silver are among the most well-known precious substances. They are both bright and rare.

Silver Photo

aluminum photo

Aluminum met these two basic conditions. In the 1800s, pure aluminum was even less common than gold. That’s why it was more valuable. The reason for the scarcity of aluminum was that it was found in nature bound to another element. It was mostly in the form of aluminum oxide by binding to oxygen and did not like to be separated from oxygen.

I would like to draw attention to this issue. Aluminum is very rare in its pure form, but aluminum oxide was abundant in nature. This gave rise to a very exciting research topic in the 1800s:

Could aluminum be obtained from aluminum oxide?

The Quests to Obtain Pure Aluminum

Many scientists have spent years on this purpose. This research was perhaps the most sought-after research since the philosopher’s stone. And finally, Charles Martin Hall, a young 23-year-old chemist, entered the stage of history.

Charles Martin Hall's photo
Charles Martin Hall

Charles Hall attended a conference on aluminum when he was still a student. Professor Frank Fanning Jewett, who gave the conference, made the following sentence at one point in his speech:

“If any of you discover a method that can produce aluminum on a commercial scale, you will not only be doing a great good for the world, but also a great fortune.”
Professor Jewett

That’s what happened. Impressed by these words, American chemist Charles Hall spent his entire undergraduate life trying to separate aluminum. But like hundreds of other scientists, he failed in this subject every time, but he did not give up.

Finally, in 1886, he passed electricity through hand-made batteries through an aluminum compound liquid. The energy from the current made a splash and instantly released the pure metal. So within minutes, pure aluminum nuggets began to build up at the bottom of the tank. Not only was this process cheap and easy, but also it worked just as well in huge tanks as it did in the lab.

“My greatest discovery was a human.” Professor Jewett said regarding this young genius. Yes, the man who turned the hierarchy in the periodic table upside down and redecked all the cards was only 23 years old.

Right after this discovery, Hall founded a company called Alcoa, which became one of the most successful ventures in history. Thanks to this discovery, he became one of the people who made the most money in the shortest time.

Alcoa image
Alcoa is still one of the most successful aluminum-producing companies

Aluminum thus became the second most widely used metal after the discovery of iron in prehistoric times. Aluminum has suddenly lost its place on the table of kings and has become a boring substance that has become the armor of the cans in our cupboards.

References and Further Readings

Charles Martin Hall. (2021, February 21). Retrieved February 22, 2021, from

Kean, S. (2011). The disappearing spoon and other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements. London: Black Swan.

Vlasov, LN, & Trifonov, DN (1977). 107 stories about chemistry . Moscow: Mir.

You can access the sources of the images used by clicking on the images.

The proofreading has been done by Asu Pelin Akköse and Mete Esencan.

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Mete Esencan

Hello everyone! I'm Mete Esencan. I am a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at METU. I was planning to establish a platform by combining the research knowledge I gained during my basic science education and the management experience I gained in the METU Chemistry Society, which I was in charge of for three years. For this purpose, in February of 2021, I took the first step and established the OkButWhy, a platform where we can write articles as if to chat about science, art and philosophy. I wish everyone a pleasant reading!

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