Birthday: December 6, 1863
Died At Age: 51
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Born Country: United States
Born in: Thompson Township, Ohio, United States
Famous as: Inventor
siblings: Julia Brainerd Hall
Died on: December 27, 1914
place of death: Daytona Beach, Florida, United States
U.S. State: Ohio
Cause of Death: Leukemia
education: Oberlin College, Oberlin Senior High School, University of Göttingen, Oberlin Academy
awards: Perkin Medal
National Inventors Hall of Fame
Who was Charles Martin Hall?
Charles Martin Hall was an inventor and entrepreneur from America, who discovered an inexpensive process to produce aluminum. His discovery revolutionized the course of metallurgy for one of the most common metals found on the Earth’s surface. The lighter, less expensive, fuel-efficient and rust-resistant airplanes and cars we find today became possible thanks to the innovator’s work. He had 22 registered patents in his name, many of them concerning constant improvements in the field of aluminum production. There was a time when aluminum was as expensive and precious as silver, because it was not naturally available in its elemental state. In addition, the method of extraction was extremely complicated and expensive. All this changed due to Hall and his perseverance to figure out a solution to this problem. He was one of the seven founder members of the Pittsburgh Reduction Company that commercialized his discovery. Born into an educated family, Hall had the acumen to start experimenting at a very early age, and his family was also very supportive of his passion. He was a philanthropist who donated most of his wealth to his alma mater and charities. An avid collector of porcelain and oriental rugs, he was also fond of listening to music.
Childhood & Early Life
Charles Martin Hall was born in the Thompson township of Ohio, US, on 6 December 1863, to Reverend Herman Bassett Hall and his wife, Sophronia Brooks. He had five sisters and two brothers, out of whom one brother died as an infant.
He started reading at a very early age, and although he joined a public school when he was eight, he had been able to read his father’s chemistry books since he was six.
He joined Oberlin High School in 1873, when the family moved there and also spent one year at the Oberlin Academy, prior to starting Oberlin College in 1880. He graduated from the college in 1885.
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A chemistry enthusiast, Charles Martin Hall showed a keen interest in inventions and discoveries when he was a teenager. He would often carry out experiments in the lab at his college. At home, he continued with his experiments in an adjoining woodshed, and sometimes in the kitchen too.
Inspired by his professor, Frank Fanning Jewett, after attending one of his lectures on aluminum, Hall became single-mindedly fixated on simplifying the metal’s extraction process from 1881. He conducted several trials to achieve this, while his sister Julia, who was a chemist, helped him with the research.
He faced many setbacks in the initial years, but he continued with his experimentations. His patience finally paid off in the year 1886. Nearly eight months after his graduation, one such series of trials resulted in the discovery of what is today known as the Hall-Héroult process of aluminium smelting.
After patenting his discovery, Hall needed funds to commercialize the method. So, he entered a collaboration with Alfred Hunt, an American metallurgist; Millard Hunsiker, a sales manager; W.S. Sample, a chemist; George Hubbard Clapp, Hall’s lab-partner; Robert Scott, a steel-mill superintendent; and Howard Lash, Carbon Steel Company’s head, to start the Pittsburgh Reduction Company in 1888.
It became the first large-scale plant to start producing aluminum, which resulted in a drastic drop in the price of the metal, making it affordable to use for industrial and commercial purposes. The firm’s name was changed to Aluminum Company of America and further shortened to “Alcoa.”
Hall gained immense wealth owing to the financial success of his aluminum processing plant and continued to work on furthering his understanding on the subject. He remained the vice president of Alcoa until his death in 1914.
He donated more than $5 million to his college and left behind most of his wealth to charity, which resulted in the founding of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, a foundation that works in Asia to help in advancement of education in the fields of social sciences and humanities.
Charles Martin Hall is known for his discovery of the Hall-Héroult process, which is an inexpensive method of extracting aluminum. On 23 February 1886, Hall was able to use cryolite, homemade laboratory equipment, and aluminum oxide to produce a few pure aluminum globules, which marked a major turning point in the history of the metal.
He filed for a patent for this discovery only to realize that a French chemist Paul L.T. Héroult had also filed a patent for the same process a few months earlier. For almost three years the two men were involved in a litigation, which culminated in the patent being awarded to Hall in 1889. His discovery helped in reducing the cost of aluminum—a metal which until then was as expensive and as precious as silver—by almost 200%.
Awards & Achievements
Charles Martin Hall was awarded the Perkin Medal in 1911 for his outstanding contribution to the field of applied chemistry. It is considered to be one of the highest honors bestowed in the United States by the Society of Chemical Industry.
In 1997, Hall’s discovery of the aluminum production method by using electrochemistry was recognized by the American Chemical Society as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.
His statue, made of aluminum, is placed at the Science Center on the 2nd floor of Oberlin College.
Family & Personal Life
Engrossed in research and experimentation, Charles Martin Hall had reserved all his love for science. He never got married nor had any children.
He died on 27th December 1914, a few weeks after crossing his 51st birthday. It is believed that Hall was suffering from leukemia which caused his death.
There is a unique connection between the lives of Hall and Héroult: both men were born in the same year (1863), worked on the same process with similar methods, in the same year (1886), and even died in the same year (1914).