A College Boy’s Idea

(Launched 22,000 Business Enterprises)


CHARLES MARTIN HALL, a 22 year old graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio discovered, in 1886, a commercially successful method of extracting alumina from common ore bearing clay. From this alumina he produced the light metal we call aluminum. Hall was confident that a huge market awaited this strong, light, bright, rustproof metal. For two years he mowed lawns, trimmed hedges and sold books from house to house to finance his effort to find investors to finance a small plant. On a hot day in July, 1888, a friend sent Hall to Captain Alfred E. Hunt, a Pittsburgh metallurgical engineer. After one or two meetings Captain Hall agreed to organize a company and obtain $20,000 to finance a plant.

By February 1889, before the plant was completed Hall wrote his sister saying: “We have already made away with $18,000.” Only a few ingots had been produced. To shore up the company’s finances Captain Hall sailed to England in search of British investors. One company seemed interested and engaged a famous engineering company to advise them. Among other things the engineering report declared: “One ton of aluminum, if it could be produced, would supply the world’s demand for a full year.”

Hall returned to Pittsburgh without money. The little company owed $4,000 and had no money to pay the debt. Hunt tried to borrow from several banks, but got only cold turn-downs. Then a friend sent him to the T. Mellon & Sons Bank. Late one afternoon Hunt got in to see Andrew Mellon who listened courteously while Hunt detailed the company’s dire financial straights. Although called the Pitts- burgh Reduction Company the plant and office were in a small iron-clad shed on Pittsburgh’s Smallman street, and was anything but impressive.

Mellon gave no encouragement and did not commit his bank in any way, but told Hunt to return the following day. Hunt spent a sleepless night worrying about the outcome of his interview with Mr. Mellon.   Next day he called on Mellon again. Although Hunt did not know it, Andrew and his brother R. B. Mellon had inspected the little plant the very afternoon Hunt had first called. Mr. Mellon told Hunt. “You need considerably more than the $4,000 to pay the loan.” Hunt probably gulped and steadied himself for another turndown. But Mr. Mellon went on to say that he would loan the $4,000 to pay the note and advance more funds for working capital.

From that day on the company we now know of as Aluminum Corporation of America had no more financial difficulties. Soon Captain Hunt engaged the son of a friend to work in the company, a man named Arthur Vining Davis who soon was in full charge of the company, and who remained with the company until his retirement after World War II.  As many other pioneers had in the past, the young men in charge of the aluminum company soon found that they could produce the metal much faster than anybody wanted to buy it. A few pounds were sold here and there to jewelry manufacturers, novelty companies, and to utensil manufacturers who experimented with the metal, but continued to stick to cast and enameled iron or brass.

At first each new ingot that came from the plant was stored in the small safe in the office. Soon the safe was too small to hold the production. Davis heard of a big power project in California and hurried there to sell aluminum wire, which conducts electricity as well as copper and is much lighter. Davis obtained the order and hoped to turn it over to some established steel or copper wire company for production. No one wanted the order. The old, established wire companies refused even to make a trial run of aluminum wire. To save this order Davis promptly built a wire mill and filled the order.

Customers were slow in learning to use aluminum, and many established manufact-urers refused to try the light metal. At one time Mr. Davis tried to sell the Griswold Company of Erie, Pennsylvania on the idea of putting a cast aluminum tea kettle in their line of cast iron skillets and other utensils. Mr. Davis borrowed a skilled iron moulder from Griswold and established him in a plant at New Kensington to prove that a cast aluminum kettle was feasible. The Griswold people approved the kettles turned out by their moulder, but refused to entertain the idea of manufacturing them, although he gave Davis an order for 2,000 kettles, which Davis promptly put into production.

A Massachusetts company which had been buying sheet aluminum from the company for use in making utensils went bankrupt and settled its account with the aluminum company (still known as Pittsburgh Reduction Company) by turning over its equipment and orders to them. One order for 2,800 kettles was found among the company papers. Officials of the Pittsburgh company, intrigued by such a large order sent for the young men whose company had ordered the 2,800 kettles. When they arrived in Pittsburgh it developed that the young men, J. H. Wilson and Charles E. Ziegler had paid their way through college selling utensils house to house. They had then formed a company to sell utensils which they bought from the Massachusetts company which had failed. They were looking for a new source of supply. The aluminum men were looking for somebody who knew how to sell. A deal was made and the two young men joined with Pittsburgh Reduction Company to organize a force of house to house salesmen. In a few years the Aluminum Cooking Utensil Company was formed to market Wear-ever cooking utensils and from three to five thousand college men spent their summer vacations selling aluminum utensils. One of these young salesmen later became a partner of J. P. Morgan & Company, others went on to careers in law, medicine and other professions, while some built successful careers in merchandising aluminum products.

By 1900 aluminum was catching on as a valuable raw material for many products, and soon a veritable “aluminum craze” swept the country. Hundreds of companies were formed to make all sorts of items of aluminum. The company itself brought out aluminum horseshoes and just when they were winning acceptance the auto-mobile industry began putting horses and mules out to pasture. The Wright Brothers used sheet aluminum in the first plane they flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. A pullman car was made of aluminum. Many uses for it were found by the automobile industry. Truck bodies, boats, airplanes, barns were built of aluminum; siding for residences was developed. Some bicycles were built of aluminum. At different times many companies attempted to use aluminum for purposes for which it was unsuited. Without aluminum the great aviation industry might not have developed. One item at a time the company began producing wire, sheets, castings, moulding, rods, plates and practically every product produced by other metal cornpanies.

Today more than 22,000 shops, factories, mills and processing plants fabricate or handle aluminum as a major raw material. And it all started when a college boy succeeded, after several years of dangerous experimenting and nearly burning down his parents’ home, in obtaining the metal from common clay. Charles Martin Hall did not live to see many spectacular developments of the industry he founded, yet he was a wealthy man at his death. Arthur Vining Davis, one of the company’s first employees became wealthy, piloted the company through multi-million dollar expansions and two world wars, then retired, moved to Florida and entered into large scale land clearing and housing developments.

One idea, several determined young salesmen and a world of persistence created an industry to serve the world, employ thousands of people, and enrich thousands of business enterprises. Yet the pioneers of the business never forget that one of the world’s most prominent engineering firms declared that one ton of aluminum would supply the entire world for a full year.

                    He that shall endure unto the end, the

                    same shall be saved. —St. Matthew X. 22

          He that voluntarily continues in ignorance,

          is guilty of all the crimes which ignorance produces.

           —Letter to Mr. W. Drum mond, SAMUEL JOHNSON

                              Invention is the talent of youth, and judgement of age.

                                                                                  —JONATHAN SWIFT

                              Money is like manure, of very little

                              use, except it be spread.

                                         —. SIR FRANCIS BACON

                                                   There is no sanctuary so holy that money

                                                   cannot profane it, no fortress so strong

that money cannot take it by storm.

                                                                                  —In Verrem, CICERO


The Joy of Words, (pgs.214-218)

Copyright 1960 by:

J. G. Ferguson Publishing Company

Chicago, Illinois

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