Replica of Washington Mionument Cap

Aluminium is the most abundant metallic element in the Earth’s crust, but it is rarely found in its elemental state.  It occurs in many minerals, but its primary commercial source is bauxite, a mixture of hydrated aluminium oxides and compounds of other elements such as iron.  Before commercial extraction technology, aluminum was considered so precious that it was chosen over gold and silver to become the cap on the Washington Monument.

The 1884 casting made to serve as the tip of the Washington monument is the 1st credited construction application using cast aluminum.  Prior to the Hall–Héroult commercial extraction process, elemental aluminium was made by heating bauxite ore along with elemental sodium or potassium in a vacuum.  This laboratory method was complicated and consumed materials that were in themselves expensive in these earlier times (early 19th century).  This meant that the cost to produce the small amount of aluminium made in the lab setting was very high, higher than for gold or platinum.  Historical records indicate how valuable the element was:  bars of aluminium were exhibited alongside the French crown jewels at the Exposition Universelle of 1855.  Even Emperor Napoleon III of France was said to have reserved his few sets of aluminium dinner plates and eating utensils for his most honored guests.  By 1884, when aluminum was still being chemically extracted in a laboratory environment, just 1 ounce of aluminum cost about as much as the daily wage of a common worker.

In 1888, the Pittsburgh Reduction Company was established, with the necessary electricity being supplied using steam generators.  The electrolysis process used to extract the aluminum is known as the “Hall-Héroult Process“.

This same company is now known as Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America).

Click here for more information about the history of Alcoa

After commercialization with electricity in 1907, Aluminum became part of everyday life with many uses — from teakettles & cookware in the early days, to aircraft, power lines, building materials, and beverage containers.  It continues to have tremendous usage today because of automotive applications.

Horydczak, Theodor, photographer.
“Horydczak on Top of the Washington Monument,” ca. 1920-1950.
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-H824-T01-2052-001.

Automotive Applications – Transforming Industry from Airplanes to Automobiles

1962 Harvey Aluminum Special Indianapolis Car
Built by Mickey Thompson, Driven by Dan Gurney

Images copyright to Paul Johnson, made available at:

1962 Indy 500 race had an aluminum intensive vehicle (Harvey Aluminum Special), where Mickey Thompson built the new rear engine chassis for Dan Gurney to drive.  Harvey Aluminum was an aluminum fabricator serving Aerospace, Automotive and Beverage Container industries.  After World War II, there was a tremendous infrastructure in place to roll and form aluminum for airplane production, but not much need for for it. So, the Harvey Aluminum company contracted with Mickey Thompson to build a set of cars to run on the high-speed track in Indianapolis.  The marketing intent was for promoting aluminum use in motor vehicles.

Photo from Chuck (Charlie) Reavis collection:

One of the earliest automotive applications for aluminum was in the transmission.  Ford Motor Company purchased die cast aluminum bell housings and tail-stock castings for reducing the weight in the Ford-o-matic transmission.  This transmission was used from 1951 to 1968 in many Ford vehicles.  Interestingly, for 3 months in 1953 this transmission was installed in Cadillac vehicles after a devastating fire at the GM Hydramatic Transmission plant in Livonia, MI.  This transmission was also used in some International and Dodge trucks, as well as in Checker Cabs.

PowerFlite Transmission –

n 1954, Chrysler finally had an automatic transmission, after years of manuals and semi-automatics — and just in time, too, as the average driver was now demanding one.

The new Powerflite was, like early Ford and GM automatics, a simple two-speed affair, combining a torque converter and a two-speed planetary gearbox. The company bragged that it was “100 pounds lighter than the heaviest competitive unit, and contains 110 fewer parts than the most complicated of these.” (Note they did not benchmark the best, but the worst. They would make up for this with the TorqueFlite, later.)  Notice how the gear box is still made from Cast Iron, while the bell housing and tail-stock are made from an aluminum alloy.

Briggs & Stratton Aluminum Engine

Briggs and Stratton introduced a die cast aluminum engine in 1953 as a means of having a lighter-weight engine for applications such as rotary lawn mowers.  The lighter weight of this lawn mower engine helped to ease the burden of pushing and it lightened the ground pressure at the wheels.  By 1957 this small aluminum engine line accounted for 80 percent of engines the company ships in the U.S.   Building on the demand and addressing bore wear, in 1958 Briggs & Stratton started marketing engines with an all-aluminum cylinder bore (Kool-Bore) and also offered an aluminum engine design with a cast-in iron liner (Sleeve-Bore).

1963 40 Hp Evinrude Lark IX

Small marine power units have used light weight aluminum alloys for their structural drive line housings and engine power heads from the early 1920’s to the present time.  Similar to the Briggs and Stratton introduction of die cast aluminum engines for lawn & garden, the Outboard Marine Corporation also transformed their aluminum casting process in the early 1950’s High Pressure Die Casting (HPDC).  The introduction of aluminum HPDC allowed the design engineers to incorporate many features into the casting designs, providing a cost effective process for light-weight, higher output designs that the post WW-II veterans were interested in buying.  This post-war economy was strong all the way into 1973, when he Nixon presidency was in question, the OPEC nations sanction an oil embargo and the US steel industry faltered from global competition.  During the 1980’s the US marine industry faced stiff competition from Japanese manufacturers and costly environmental remediation in the same communities where employees lived and worked.

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