In 1825, Danish chemist Hans Christian Oersted had become the first to produce tiny amounts of aluminium.
Two years later in 1827, German chemist Friedrich Wöhler had developed a different way to obtain the metal.
By 1845, Wöhler had been able to produce samples large enough to determine some of aluminium’s basic properties.
Charles Martin Hall was born December 6, 1863 in Thompson, Ohio.
His family moved to Oberlin, Ohio in 1873. As a child, he demonstrated an aptitude for chemistry, carrying out experiments in the kitchen and the woodshed attached to their house.
At the age of 16, Charles enrolled at Overlin College where his father had graduated in 1847.
He was encouraged in his scientific experiments by Professor Frank Fanning Jewett.
In his second term, Hall attended, with considerable interest, Professor Jewett’s lecture on aluminum; it was here that Jewett displayed a sample of aluminium he had obtained from Friedrich Wöhler, and remarked, “if anyone should invent a process by which aluminum could be made on a commercial scale, not only would he be a benefactor to the world, but would also be able to lay up for himself a great fortune.”
Professor Jewett taught that although aluminium was the most aboundant metal in the earth’s crust, it was hardly ever found in nature. All of the earth’s aluminium has combined with other elements to form compounds.
In fact, aluminium was so rare at that time, that it was considered a precious metal.
By 1881, the 18 year old student Charles Hall had begun seeking an aluminium reduction process. Charles attempted, unsuccessfully, to produce aluminium from clay by smelting with carbon in contact with charcoal and potassium chlorate.
He then attempted to improve the electrolytic methods previously established by investigating cheaper methods to produce aluminium chloride, again unsuccessfully.
By his senior year at Overlin College, Charles had attempted to electrolyse aluminium fluoride in water solution, but was still unable to produce aluminium at the cathode.
When Charles graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1885, he was still focused on manufacturing pure aluminium.
Still dedicated to his research, and with assistance from his older sister Julia Brainerd Hall, Charles began fabricating his own apparatus and preparing his own chemicals in a woodshed attached to the family Hall family home in Oberlin, Ohio.
Charles built a homemade coal-fired furnace with bellows and continued to seek a catalyst that would allow him to reduce aluminium with carbon at hight temperatures:
“I tried mixtures of alumina and carbon with barium salts, with cryolite, and with carbonate of sodium, hoping to get a double reaction by which the final result would be aluminum. I remember buying some metallic sodium and trying to reduce cryolite, but obtained very poor results. I made some aluminum sulphide but found it very unpromising as a source of aluminum then as it has been ever since.”
Then on February 23, 1886, Charles Hall successfully passed an electric current through a bath of alumina dissolved in cryolite, which resulted in a puddle of aluminum forming in the bottom of the retort.
This was the first ever sample of man-made aluminum.
On July 9, 1886, Charles filed for his first patent.
However, this process was also discovered at nearly the same time by the Frenchman Paul Héroult, and it has come to be known as the Hall-Héroult process.
After several unsuccessful attempts to interest financial backers, Charles obtained the support of Pittsburgh financier and metallurgist Alfred E. Hunt and a few of his friends.
In 1888, they founded the Pittsburgh Reduction Company now known as the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA).
Then on April 2, 1889, Charles Hall was awarded U.S. patent #400,666 for his inexpensive method for the production of aluminum.
In 1890, Charles became company vice president of ALCOA and by 1900, annual production of aluminum reached about 8 thousand tons, becoming the first metal to attain widespread use since the prehistoric discovery of iron.
Charles Hall won the Perkin Medal, the highest award in American industrial chemistry in 1911.
By 1914, ALCOA had brought the cost of aluminum down to 18 cents a pound and it was no longer considered a precious metal and affordable for practical uses.
Understanding aluminum’s potential, Charles brought his product to industries such as aircraft and automobile manufacturing.
As a major stockholder in ALCOA, Charles Hall became very wealthy.
Today, more aluminum is produced than all other non-ferrous metals combined.
Charles Hall is also considered the originator of the American spelling of aluminum. According to Oberlin College, he misspelled it on a handbill publicizing his aluminum refinement process. The process was so revolutionary, and brought the metal to such prominence, that Americans have spelled aluminum with one “i” since.
Charles Hall continued his research and development for the rest of his life and was granted 22 US patents, most on aluminum production. He even served on the Oberlin College Board of Trustees.
He remained vice-president of ALCOA until his death on December 27, 1914 at the age of 51 in Daytona, Florida.
He died unmarried and childless and was buried in Westwood Cemetery in Oberlin.
Charles Hall left the vast majority of his fortune to charity. His generosity contributed to the establishment of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, a leading foundation dedicated to advancing higher education in Asia in the humanities and social sciences.
In 1997, the production of aluminum metal by electrochemistry discovered by Hall was designated as a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society.
Today in Oberlin, Ohio, the Oberlin Heritage Center features an exhibit called Aluminum: The Oberlin Connection, which includes a re-creation of Charles Hall’s 1886 woodshed experiment.
The Hall House is also preserved in Oberlin, although the woodshed was demolished long ago.
Charles Hall’s aluminum statue at Oberlin College
Oberlin students became fond of the statue of Charles Hall made of aluminum. Because of its light weight, Hall’s statue was once known for its frequent changes of location, often due to student pranks.
Today the statue is glued to a large granite block and sits more permanently on the second floor of Oberlin’s new science center, where students continue to decorate Hall with appropriate trappings on holidays and other occasions.
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