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A brief history of the 'Metal Of The Future'! - Part 1

Hello everyone!

Aluminium is called the 'Metal of the Future' for a reason. From pins to planes, the metal has thousands of applications benefitting humankind. Its lightweight and non-corrosive property make it the material of choice for cutting-edge automobiles, modern buildings, satellites etc. and is eventually substituting iron and steel today. 

In this series, we bring to you the journey that our civilisation has travelled using aluminium along the way - a story which must start from the very beginning. Here we go!

Did you know that aluminium is the most common metal found in earth’s crust? Almost 8% which, considering the earth’s size, is pretty staggering. However, given the difficulty in extracting aluminium and the subsequent costs associated with it, for decades aluminium was prized above gold. So much so that the first president of 1948 French Second Republic, proudly served his most honoured guests using aluminium plates & cutlery. Whoa! From there to the foil-wrapped sandwich sitting in your lunchbox, aluminium has come a long way. Let us take you through a brief history of – no, not time – aluminium, and on the way we promise more ‘whoa!’ moments. So, go on, get comfortable and geek on!

1808: Sir Humphry Davy, the renowned inventor of an early version of the incandescent light bulb and ace scientist coined the name ‘aluminium’ for a metal that he ascertained could be extracted using electrolysis from its oxide. This was the man who had extracted new chemical elements such as Boron, Potassium, Sodium, Barium, Calcium, Potassium and Strontium, using electrolysis. So yeah, as commercial metals go, Aluminium is barely in its teens, compared to its counterparts - iron, copper and lead. Interesting!

Humphrey Davy 
1821: The credit for discovering the red rock that would later be used as the ore for extracting alumina (aluminium oxide) goes to the geologist Pierre Berthier. The rock was called ‘Bauxite’ after the region where it was discovered first – Les Baux. There, another French word for your repertoire.

Bauxite rock
Les Baux-de-Provence
1825: The Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted, on 8th April 1825, demonstrated a metal that he had extracted by electrolysis. He had, previously, at a session of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, announced of his successful attempts at extracting what he said was aluminium. However, the scientific world is unsure if what he extracted was pure aluminium or an alloy.

Hans Christian Oersted

Fredrich Wohler
1854: The chemists Sainte-Claire Deville and Robert Wilhelm Bunsen, working simultaneously and independently developed a method for extracting ‘pure’ aluminium by electrolysis. The academia isn’t sure of who should be credited for this, for while Bunsen published reports of his work first, Deville showed specimens of the metal first. Sounds like an Academy worthy movie script, someone dial the Writers Guild, please!

Robert Bunsen
1856: Because it was lightweight, silvery in appearance and expensive to extract, aluminium was considered amongst precious metals in those days. It was used to make jewellery, artefacts, Napoleon III’s medals and a baby-rattle for Prince Louis Napoleon. Wonder if Gollum knew of this shiny “precious” metal.

Carol's jewellery
1858: The Tissier brothers beat Sainte-Claire Deville to a volume on aluminium, which they published in 1858. Poor Deville was forced to hurry up and publish his work, titled 'Aluminium'. Someone give this guy a break!

Sainte Claire Deville
1865: How much do you remember the books your English teacher forced you to read during summer holidays? Jules Gabriel Verne, the renowned French novelist credited with stories like ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’, ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, wrote of a man setting sail to the moon in an aluminium spaceship. If you haven’t read Verne, we’d urge you to get your hands on one of his volumes.

Around the world in 80 days

For the complete story, check out the link:

The journey continues as we move beyond 1865 in our next post.


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