Need for power led ALCOA to Blount

2005-07-17

by Dean Stone

Finding less expensive ways to separate aluminum from the other elements to which it was bonded and the resulting need for large amounts of power to operate aluminum smelters led ALCOA to the watershed of the Little Tennessee River in 1910.

This is the second in a series of articles on ALCOA's start in Blount County in the former bustling community of Calderwood in southeast corner of the county.Calderwood was the base of operations for the building of Cheoah, Santeetlah and Calderwood dams.

In 1825, Hans Christian Oersted told the Royal Danish Academy he produced a small lump of aluminum. Sainte-Claire Deville made some improvements and by 1855 commercial plants using his process were operating in France. But it was costly. It was his exhibit next to the crown jewels at the Paris Exposition in 1855 that caught the eye of Napoleon III.

A valuable metal, worth five times as much as copper in 1895, it was known as "silver from clay" and sold for the equivalent of $545 per pound.

The later value of aluminum was vividly illustrated during World War II when ALCOA was producing aluminum for U.S. and Allied warplanes. During that war, the only invaders to land on the American mainland came with the purpose of "harming as much as possible aluminum production in the United States." Nazi submarines landed eight saboteurs - four in Florida and four on Long Island.

Subsequently captured by the FBI, their papers and testimony indicated that among their primary mission was the destruction of ALCOA plants at Alcoa, Tennessee; Massena, N.Y., and East St. Louis, Ill.

The French chemist persuaded Napoleon III to grant him funds to work out an economical method of extracting aluminum. The Emperor thought the metal might have military value. However, the first object was a baby rattle with which his infant son, France's Crown Prince Imperial, played. An aluminum breastplate quickly followed. The Emperor himself sipped soup from an aluminum spoon at state banquets and presented an aluminum watch chain to the visiting King of Siam.

Aluminum graduated from the laboratory in 1886. Charles Martin Hall, working in a woodshed in Oberlin, Ohio, and the Parisian Paul Héoult independently and almost simultaneously found the inexpensive simple way to produce aluminum. Both were just 22 years old.

(Charles M. Hall High which was established in 1926 in Alcoa for African-American students was named for the American discoverer of the process. Hall Road also was named for him.)(To be continued)

Source: Maryville Daily Times
Dean Stone is editor of The Daily Times.