Historical Markers
Charles Martin Hall Historical Marker
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Charles Martin Hall

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
3200 Smallman St., Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
October 1998

Behind the Marker

In September 1889, the Pittsburg[h] Commercial Gazette stated that, "Few persons are aware that an aluminum-making plant is now in full operation in this city." At the time steel magnate markerAndrew Carnegie was making Pittsburgh the center of the American steel industry. Within a few decades the city was also the home to the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), the sole producer of the metal in the United States until World War II.
Black and white portrait of a young man in a suit.
Charles Martin Hall, age 22, circa 1885.

The American aluminum industry was born in the laboratory of twenty-two-year-old Charles Martin Hall, in Oberlin, Ohio. A recent graduate of Oberlin College, Hall, like many young men of his era, wanted to become a famous inventor. One of the projects he chose to work on was the production of aluminum metal. Aluminum is the most abundant element in the earth's crust, but it only exists combined with oxygen and other elements in minerals. Unlike copper or iron ores, aluminum ores could not be smelted in a furnace to produce metal. Because of this problem, pure aluminum metal was not discovered until 1825, after which chemists developed methods only for making small amounts.

Finding a cheap and efficient method for making this light, malleable, and weather resistant metal became a goal of hopeful inventors around the world. In 1886, Hall, with considerable assistance from his older sister Julia, discovered an electrolytic process that is still used today. The key breakthrough came when he learned that passing an electrical current through a molten solution of alumina ore and the mineral cryolite formed aluminum metal. (A young Frenchmen, P.L. T. Heroult, made the same discovery at the same time as Hall.)

Drawing of the original Hall electrolytic cell set-up in the Pittsburgh Reduction Company plant, which shows the cast-iron crucibles, or pots, the carbon anodes suspended by copper rods from an overhead copper support, and on the floor, ingot molds.
Drawing of the Pittsburgh Reduction Company's first cell room, circa 1886, showing...
Discovering the electrolysis process was one thing; getting financial backing for commercial production was quite another. After deals with investors in Ohio and New York fell through, Hall turned to the booming industrial center of Pittsburgh, where in the summer of 1888 he met Alfred E. Hunt, a metallurgist with an independent testing laboratory that served the steel industry. Impressed by Hall's process, Hunt and several associates raised $20,000 and formed the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, which opened a small plant on the Smallman Street, near 32nd. The partners began operations on Thanksgiving Day, 1888. Equipped with a 125 horsepower engine and two direct current dynamos, Hall, Arthur Vining Davis (who eventually chaired the Aluminum Company of America) and a handful of employees took turns manning the "pots" at night in two-week rotations.

Breakdowns in the gerry-rigged equipment were a constant problem in the early days. On a good day Pittsburgh Reduction made about thirty pounds of aluminum, which it sold for $8 a pound. By 1907 production reached 15,000,000 pounds per year and the company changed its name to Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). Seven years later aluminum sold for only 14 cents per pound!

Black and white drawing of the exterior of the company. A wagon with horse and driver sits at the entrance.
The Pittsburgh Reduction Company as it appeared in 1888.
Now that Pittsburgh Reduction had developed a way to efficiently produce aluminum, the next challenge was to find uses for it. The most remarkable property of the new metal was lightness; aluminum is only one-third as dense as steel. Some of the early applications included kitchen utensils, cables, machine parts, and novelty items, such as outdoor playing cards that would not blow away. Aluminum was used extensively in bicycles during the boom of the 1890s, so some predicted it would play a major role in the emerging automobile industry.

Aluminum's enormous potential quickly attracted the attention of the prominent Pittsburgh banking family, the Mellons, which had made its fortune in real estate and through lending money to Andrew Carnegie and markerHenry Clay Frick when they were pioneering Pennsylvania's steel and bituminous coal industries.
Superintendent P.H. McLaughlin placing cap-stone on monument, with other engineers and two workers.
Setting of the aluminum cap-stone on top of the Washington Monument, December...

Mellon made its first investment into the young company in 1890, and four years later funded construction of a new plant at Niagara Falls to take advantage of cheap hydroelectric power. The company headquarters, however, remained in Pittsburgh, seat of the Mellon financial empire. (Mellon eventually controlled one-third of Alcoa's stock.) After Alfred Hunt died in 1899, Andrew Mellon's brother Richard ran the company until 1910 when Arthur Vining Davis began his long tenure at the helm. When he retired in 1957, Davis was reputed to be the third richest man in the world.

By then, Alcoa had long been the world's largest producer of aluminum. But it was not the first American company to produce the metal. That honor belonged to German immigrant William Frishmuth. After studying chemistry in Germany, Frishmuth had come to Philadelphia in 1855, studied law, served as a secret agent for Lincoln in the Civil War, and then organized the 12th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment of Cavalry. After the war he returned to chemistry and eventually received twelve patents for electroplating of metals and other work in the field of electricity.

Using a chemical reduction process, Frishmuth produced a highly tooled aluminum surveyor's transit, which he displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. By 1884 his Philadelphia foundry at Rush and Amber Streets could still turn out only about 51 kilograms a year. (World production that year was 3.6 tons, most of which was made in France, England, and Germany.) This was more than sufficient, however, for his foundry to cast the aluminum cap placed atop the Washington Monument on December 6, 1884.

By the early 1890s, Pittsburgh Reduction had driven Frishmuth into bankruptcy. He committed suicide in 1893. Charles Hall, on the other hand, went on to become a wealthy man. Hall would die in 1914, owning $27 million in Alcoa stock. A life-long bachelor, he left one-third of his money to the American Missionary Society, one-third to Oberlin College, and one-third to his siblings.
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