aluminium washington monument

Despite the fact that aluminium angles and its other handy shapes continue to find new, dominant ground in construction, our favoured non-ferrous metal has a long and rich history almost everywhere. For over 200 years, advancements in metallurgy have allowed aluminium to go from a chemist's curiosity to a cornerstone in modern industries spanning the world over (as you can read in our blog "How Aluminium Has Shaped the World"). For this entry of the Austen Knapman blog, we've scanned our history books in order to highlight aluminium's greatest hits, and its most groundbreaking uses

Aluminium's Early, Notable Appearances

Though we have evidence that ancient Greeks and Romans used 'alum' as an astringent for early medicinal purposes, it was the Cornish chemist and inventor Humphry Davy who first identified the metal base of alum (which he at first called 'alumium') in 1808, though the German chemist Frederich Wohler was the first to isolate aluminium in a form far more recognizable to us today (we mentioned this in our blog post on the "Top 5 Historic Breakthroughs in Metallurgy").

Regardless, it would not be until the mid-1880's that aluminium metal could first be produced, and at that point it was more famous than gold; being showcased at the Exposition Universelle of 1855, and (though this sounds slightly mythical to us) Napoleon supposedly let his dinner guests of honour eat with aluminium utensils. Interestingly, a piece of jewellery buried within the tomb of 3rd Century Chinese general Chou-Chu contains 85% aluminium, though no historian quite knows how it was produced...

Those, Precious First Uses of Aluminium

Despite, or perhaps because of its incredible value, aluminium was the metal cast by William Frishmuth to be the capstone of the Washington Monument in 1884. Known as the 'aluminium apex', this inscribed tipping point features a large hole in its base to receive a threaded copper rod, protecting the monument from lightning, and was the largest single piece of aluminium cast at the time. Over in our shores, one of the first statues cast in aluminium was that of Anteros, the Greek god of requited love, which still sits today in Picadilly Circus.

Aluminium Lands in the Early 20th Century

The Bayer and Hall-Herout process, which extracts alumina from bauxite, was discovered in 1887, and by the early 1900's countless businesses and industrialists were recognizing the metal's potential. Power lines, elevated electrical train wiring and engines benefited hugely from aluminium, and it was even being used as a building material in places as far flung as Sydney. The emerging aviation industry owes a lot to aluminium too: the Wright brothers used an aluminium engines to power their first biplane in 1903, and in 1919 the first aircraft made from duralumin (an alloy developed in Dueren, Germany) took to the sky.

Good old aluminium foil made its market debut in 1910, and alloy development as an industry followed one year later. When the Great Depression put the world under strain, a series of Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects were established with the end goal of producing more primary aluminium on a cheaper scale, leading to an industrial-level of aluminium production that would be the foundation for our omnipresent modern industry.

Aluminium Uses Up to the Present

WWII saw plenty of need for cheaply available, abundant aluminium, which was used in aircraft frames, ship infrastructure, radar chaffs and millions of mess kits. The 50's saw the first of the now iconic white-enamel/aluminium-frame washers and dryers, and the aluminium two-piece can - one of the metal's most synonymous by-products - was introduced by the Coors brewery in 1959. Aluminium wire was also used almost exclusively to wire households between the 1960's-70's; however an incompatibility with older devices resulted in a number of fires, and manufacturing standards were subsequently improved.

Aluminium is used throughout today's aviation industry (making up 2/3 of any passenger plane's dry weight...), but its cheapness ironically made it the most valuable metal of the space race too. The first Soviet satellite was made of aluminium alloys, whilst the body casing of the American 'Avantgarde' and 'Titan' rockets, various components of spaceship equipment as well as the conical structure of the historic Apollo spacecraft all utilized various forms of aluminium.

For all future blogs and news relating to aluminium angles and other notable variations of the metal, keep an eye on the Austen Knapman Facebook page, Twitter and Google+.



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