Martin Hall Solves the Aluminum Challenge
Semiprecious to Abundant
1886, aluminum was a semiprecious metal comparable in price to silver.
Although the element had been discovered in 1825 and had been investigated
by many European scientists, the only way to prepare the metal was
by the complex and difficult process that culminated in reacting
metallic sodium with aluminum chloride. When the Washington Monument
was completed in 1884, a 6-pound pyramid of this costly aluminum
was placed as an ornament at the very top. It also served as the
tip of the lightning rod system, a practical application of the
high electrical conductivity and corrosion resistance of this remarkable
metal. However, economical methods were needed to wrest aluminum
from its abundant minerals, which Henri Sainte-Claire Deville, the
great French chemist, observed "could be found in every clay
men with a common interest in aluminum metal met on the campus of
Oberlin College near Cleveland, Ohio, in 1880. Frank Jewett was
a world traveler and as well educated in chemical science as any
American academic of his day. Charles Hall was a local youth, self-educated
in science, who hoped to become a successful inventor and entrepreneur.
Their association over the next five-and-one-half years led to the
discovery of a practical process for making aluminum from its ore
by an electric current. Within three more years, Hall was producing
pure aluminum metal on an industrial scale. Aluminum, the curiosity,
became a widely used material, and the younger man achieved his
goal of a financially successful career in technology and industry.
Fanning Jewett received his undergraduate education and did some
graduate work in chemistry and mineralogy at Yale University. From
1873 to 1875, he continued his chemistry studies at the University
of G¦ttingen in Germany. There he became well acquainted with current
European science and became interested in the promise of aluminum.
He met Professor Friedrich W¦hler, who had isolated aluminum as
a metal in 1827 following H. C. Oersted's lead in 1825. Before Jewett
returned to America in 1875 to become Oliver Wolcott Gibbs's private
assistant at Harvard University, he obtained a sample of aluminum
metal. In 1876, he was nominated by the president of Yale to teach
science at the Imperial University in Tokyo, where he was one of
a small group of Westerners. In 1880 at the age of 36, Jewett became
the professor of chemistry and mineralogy at Oberlin College.
Martin Hall first learned chemistry as a serious-minded youth in
the town of Oberlin by reading an 1840s textbook he found on the
shelves of his minister father's study. He also carried on experiments
at home, the beginning of a lifelong enthusiasm for experimental
work. An avid reader in many fields, he eagerly followed the popular
invention literature in Scientific American. Hall was already
intrigued by the romance of aluminum when, as a 16-year-old freshman
at Oberlin College in the fall of 1880, he went to the chemistry
laboratory to obtain some items for his home laboratory. There he
met Professor Jewett.