There are so many things today made of aluminum that it is hard to realize that at one time aluminum was classified as a semi-precious metal.
Aluminum is extracted from bauxite, and its properties make it very useful. It is easily worked and can be drawn or stretched into sheets, rods, wires, tubes and many special shapes. It protects itself against rusting, and only silver, copper and gold are better conductors of heat and electricity than is aluminum.
Hans Christian Oersted, a Danish scientist working in a laboratory, produced the first aluminum in 1825 by using intense heat to create aluminum chloride vapors and passing them over a heated mixture of potassium and mercury.
Henri Sainte-Claire Deville, a French scientist, brought aluminum out of the laboratory stage in 1854 by using more inexpensive metallic sodium instead of potassium, but it still was a slow and expensive process.
The modern process of producing aluminum cheaply and in large quantities was developed by Charles Martin Hall in the Cowles Electric Smelting and Aluminum Company building in Lockport.
Alfred and Eugene Cowles were from Cleveland, Ohio. They were the sons of Edwin Cowles, founder and editor of the Cleveland Leader and the Cleveland Evening News. The Cowles brothers became interested in the reduction of ores through intense heat and, working in the laboratory of Charles F. Brush, the inventor of the arc light, they developed the internally heated electric furnace. They were granted patents on their processes.
In 1886, the Cowles brothers came to Lockport, formed the Cowles Electric Smelting and Aluminum Co., and erected a stone building on the Eighteen Mile Creek at the foot of Gooding Street hill. Using the 30-foot fall of Eighteen Mile Creek, they produced metal alloys with their electric furnace. This was one of only two electric smelting plants existing in the world, the other plant being in England. The largest dynamo and carbons in the world were in use at the Lockport plant.
Charles Martin Hall was born in Thompson, Ohio, Dec. 6, 1863. His father, the Rev. Heman B. Hall, was pastor of a Congregational Church. The family later moved to Oberlin, Ohio, and Charles Hall attended Oberlin College, graduating in 1885. Following his graduation, working in his father's woodshed, he developed the electrolytic process of recovering aluminum from bauxite and obtained a patent on the process. He met the Cowles brothers in Cleveland, and in 1887 he came to Lockport, where he perfected the process of extracting pure aluminum using their electric furnace.
The price of aluminum in 1884 was $15 per pound, but by 1890 the price had dropped to 50 cents per pound. The Cowles Brothers took a six-month option on Hall's process, but at the end of the six months they refused to accept Charles Martin Hall as a partner, so Charles Martin Hall went to Pittsburgh and signed an agreement with the Pittsburgh Reduction Co., now the Aluminum Company of America. He became a millionaire, as did Andrew Mellon and many of his other associates.
Alfred Cowles' inquiring mind led him to experiment with "metallic soaps," and in 1908 the company began to manufacture a line of patented detergents for use in laundries, textile mills and dairies.
The Metal Finishing Department offered a line of products for use in metal cleaning, metal brightening and plating. In 1923, the company became the Cowles Detergent Co., and for a time was the only complete line supplier of chemical products for use in the commercial laundry industry. In 1949 the company became the Cowles Chemical Co., and in 1962 the company was sold and became the VanDeMark Chemical Co.
CLARENCE "DUTCH" ADAMS has been active in the Niagara County Historical Society since his retirement from the Lockport school system in 1980.
The Niagara County Historical Society's museum and gift shop at 215 Niagara St., Lockport, are open Wednesday through Saturday, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. They can be reached at 434-7433.
Local historians who wish to submit a typed article for possible publication should mail it to Anne Neville, The Buffalo News, 8890 Porter Road, Niagara Falls, N.Y., 14304. Please include your phone number for confirmation.