The Man Who Made Aluminum Bats Possible… For Better or Worse!
Charles Martin Hall was born in 1863 in Thompson, Ohio, about 40 miles east of Cleveland. He was something of a wonderkid in that by the age of 6 he was reading chemistry books written for adults. At 8 years old he entered school and at 16 he attended his father’s alma mater, Oberlin College.
It was at Oberlin that Hall sat in on a lecture about aluminum and the speaker said: “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“. Hall took that challenge to heart and it infused much of his research over the next decade.
Aluminum is the most common metal formed in the Earth’s crust at 8.23% of its mass, and behind only Oxygen 46.1% and Silicon 28.2% in overall abundance. The problem however is that aluminum isn’t found on its own but rather as part of a compound from which it must be extracted. Extraction was difficult and aluminum was expensive, costing approximately $8 a pound in the 1880s, which made it cost prohibitive when compared to steel which was priced at close to two cents per pound. Indeed, aluminum was so expensive at that time that it was considered a precious metal.
Hall set about doing experiments trying to figure out how to extract the aluminum more efficiently. Although he experimented all though school he was never successful. Later, in 1884 he set up his own lab with a homemade furnace. Two years later he struck gold – aluminum actually – when he developed what is called the Hall–Héroult process which involved sending an electric current through a bath of alumina dissolved in cryolite. The name comes from the fact that Hall and a Frenchman named Paul Héroult discovered the process almost simultaneously, each doing so independently. Hall applied for a US patent and it was granted in 1889, Number: 600,444.
After failing to raise capital at home Hall went to Pittsburg and metallurgist Alfred E. Hunt. Together they formed a company that would eventually be called Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America) and opened the first large scale aluminum production plant. Hall’s process would revolutionize aluminum production around the world and would by the time he died in 1914 the cost of aluminum had dropped 97% from 1887’s $8 per pound to $.18 per pound. Its strength and light weight made aluminum an ideal metal for use in a wide variety of applications, from food packaging to aluminum foil to cars and much later airplanes. Indeed, aluminum became a viable alternative to many products that were previously manufactured using glass and steel and at the same time its light weight, strength and versatility created opportunities for flexible packaging and shapes that previously didn’t exist. And that includes Baseball Bats!
Hall would eventually move to Florida but he would spend much of his life refining and improving his process, eventually earning 22 patents. Charles Martin Hall died in 1914 having never married or having children. He left the bulk of his sizable fortune to charity. In one of the strange quirks of fate, the other man after whom the Hall–Héroult process is named, Paul Héroult, was born the same year as Hall… and died the same year Hall did!