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Charles Martin Hall had a purpose to his life. And it wasn't a small one, either.
"Mr. Hall revealed that probably his chief ambition in life was to make some discovery which would be revolutionary with regard to the present conception of the constitution of matter and which would be of immense benefit to mankind," wrote Arthur Vining Davis, former president and chairman of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), which Hall helped found in 1888.
For Hall (1863-1914), the ticket to making his dream into a reality was his love for science and interest in aluminum.
From the time he was a teenager, Hall noted that although aluminum was the Earth's most abundant metal, the process for extracting it from its ore in a laboratory was so difficult it was only made in small quantities. Supply and demand made aluminum as expensive as silver. Hall vowed to find a better way. During his years at Oberlin College in Ohio, he tried and failed repeatedly. Still, he stayed positive and worked to discover an easier method of extraction.
Day and night, "consciously and subconsciously, he was still working on the problem of producing cheap aluminum," wrote Julius Edwards in "The Immortal Woodshed: The Story of the Inventor Who Brought Aluminum to America." "Hall was at heart . . . a tireless experimenter."
He approached science deliberately and logically. He formed theories based on his experiments, then asked others to confirm his findings.
After graduating in 1885, Hall returned to his family's home to continue his experiments. He went over his records to re-evaluate the problem, and then embarked on a new strategy. He realized he'd need more work space and new equipment, so he moved his lab out of the house and into the woodshed.
While his fellow graduates jumped into the business world, Hall focused on making his discovery so he could make his mark in that world. He locked himself in the woodshed, combining countless substances in his quest. He carefully logged each attempt and its outcome. When he found a promising combination, he tried numerous variations until he was sure it wouldn't work.
Then, in February 1886, Hall made his breakthrough: electrolyzing alumina dissolved in molten cryolite. He'd discovered an inexpensive method for isolating pure aluminum from its compounds.
He wasn't alone, however: The potential rewards for a cheaper aluminum isolation process had scientists the world over racing to find a workable method. French chemist Paul L.T. Heroult was one of them, and he developed the same method at about the same time as Hall. The process became known as the Hall-Heroult process.
Aware of the other efforts, Hall moved immediately to protect his method. He wrote immediately to the U.S. Patent Office, submitting his process.
Patent number 400,655, granted to Hall in 1889, changed the aluminum industry forever.
To make his efforts profitable, Hall knew he had to make the process available for widespread use. So he worked as relentlessly in finding backers and raising capital as he did in the lab.
He made a list of industries that might use aluminum. He prepared drawings and charts to show how the process could be applied. Then he made appointments with various wealthy individuals to show how they'd benefit if they invested in his idea.
His presentation persuaded some investors to join him, and the Pittsburgh Reduction Company was born. The firm was re-named the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) in 1907.
Alcoa's lightweight aluminum helped revolutionize the automotive and aviation industries; aluminum foil eased the lives of housewives everywhere. Demand for Hall's aluminum led to production soaring from 10,000 pounds in the company's first year to 15 million by 1907. One plant grew to three.
In 1911, Hall was internationally recognized with the Perkin Medal for his contributions to chemistry.
"Hall's process is a new discovery. It is a decided step forward in the art of making aluminum. Since it has been put into practical use, the price of aluminum has been reduced from six or eight dollars a pound to 65 cents. This is a revolution in the art and has had the effect of extending the uses of aluminum in many directions not possible when its price was high . . . Hall was a pioneer and is entitled to the advantages which that fact gives him in the patent law," said Judge William Howard Taft, later U.S. president, in a 1893 ruling in Hall's favor regarding a patent case.
By 1914, the cost of aluminum was down to 18 cents a pound.
Hall's parents gave him a solid educational foundation. His mother taught him to read before he was 5. Books were plentiful in the Hall household, and young Charles pored through every one he could get his hands on. He even delved into his father's college chemistry books: the heavy tomes introduced him to, and sparked his love of, science.
"I have often seen him, after he had read for a while, lying asleep with his face on the book. . . . Someone would pick him up, still sleeping, and put him and his beloved book in a safe place," Hall's sister Julia recalled years later.
Hall's love of reading and education stayed with him his entire life.
"He used to read the Encyclopedia Britannica night after night, year after year, literally . . . He used to . . . open it wherever it happened to open; then he would spend the evening reading, and he accumulated a big fund of information in that manner," Davis said.
Learning From The Best
Figuring he could learn from those who'd gone before him, Hall studied the lives of successful people, especially inventors such as George Westinghouse. From the "Scientific American," he learned about patent law and practices, and keeping ideas secret until they're ready.
Even as his success and net worth increased, Hall's work ethic remained solid. "He was not just satisfied with having someone else promote his process, Edwards wrote. "Although a director and vice president of his company, he worked long hours at the plant, determined that the success of his process and (of the) company should far exceed any of his original prophecies."
Science wasn't Hall's only interest, however. He had a lifelong love and appreciation of nature, and music had been a passion for him since childhood. Playing the piano was a source of relaxation his entire life, and helped him clarify scientific problems, Edwards wrote.
He also fed his soul. He attended church regularly, and drew strength from the stories of great men who sacrificed for their convictions. "The creed which found most significant expression in his works and deeds emphasized the importance and value of good character," said his brother, George Hall.
While Hall helped to change industry and make many goods available to the masses that would otherwise have been unaffordable, he never forgot what helped make him a success. Upon his death, Hall bequeathed Oberlin College more than $5 million.
-- Investor's Business Daily, October 6, 2005