Aluminum metal is scarce in native form, and the means to refine it from ores is complicated, so for most of human history, it was relatively unknown.
However, the alum compound has been identified since the 5th century BCE and was employed widely by ancient humans for dyeing. During the early Middle Ages, its use for extensive dyeing made it a property for trade in the international market. Renaissance experts believed that alum was a salt of new earth; during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, it was discovered that this earth, alumina, was an oxide of an unknown metal. This metal discovery was announced in 1825 by Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted, whose work was continued by the famous German chemist Friedrich Wöhler.
Let’s explore the complete history and evolution of Aluminium.
The usage of its compound alum shaped the history of aluminum. The first written account of alum was in the 5th century BCE by the Greek historian Herodotus.
The ancient humans used it as a dyeing mordant, in chemical milling, in medicine, and as a fire-resistant covering for wood to defend fortresses from enemy torching and raids. The aluminum metal was undiscovered.
Roman writer Petronius discussed in his book Satyricon that an incredible glass had been bestowed to the emperor: after the king’s guards threw it on the pavement, it did not break but only slightly deformed. It was restored to its former shape using an iron hammer. After learning from the creator that nobody else knew how to create this material, the emperor had the designer of this particular metal executed so that it did not reduce the price of gold. (ouch)
Alterations of this tale were discussed briefly in Natural History by Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian who noted the account had “been current through constant repetition rather than genuine.”
Some experts suggest this glass could be Aluminium. It is possible The peasants produced aluminum-containing alloys in China during the reign of the first Jin dynasty (265 CE–420 CE).
At the inception of the Renaissance, the alum’s nature remained unknown. Around 1530 CE, Swiss physician Paracelsus identified alum as separate from sulfates (vitriol) and suggested it was a salt of the earth.
In 1595, a German chemist and doctor Andreas Libavius illustrated the same acid formed alum and blue and green vitriol but several piles of the earth; for the unknown earth that produced alum, he proposed the name “alumina.”
German chemist Georg Ernst Stahl stated the unknown base of alum was akin to lime or chalk in 1702; many scientists shared this mistaken view for half a century.
In 1722, German chemist Friedrich Hoffmann suggested the base of alum was a distinct earth. In 1728, French chemist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire claimed unknown sulfuric acid and earth formed alum; he mistakenly believed burning that earth yielded silica. Geoffroy’s mistake was only corrected in 1785 by German chemist and pharmacist Johann Christian Wiegleb. He determined that the earth of alum could not be synthesized from alkalis and silica, contrary to modern belief.)
French chemist Jean Gello proved the earth in clay and the earth resulting from an alkali reaction on alum were identical in 1739.
German chemist Johann Heinrich Pott showed the residue obtained from pouring an alkali into an alum solution was different from chalk and lime in 1746.
In 1824 CE, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted tried to produce the metal. He reacted potassium amalgam with anhydrous aluminum chloride, yielding a lump of metal similar to tin. He presented his results and displayed a sample of the new metal in 1825 CE. In 1826 CE, he wrote, “aluminum has a metallic luster and somewhat light grayish color and breaks down water gradually”; this implies he had obtained an aluminum–potassium alloy, rather than pure Aluminium.
Ørsted placed little importance on his discovery. He did not notify either Berzelius or Davy, both of whom he knew, and published his work in a Danish not known unknown to the European public. As a result, he is often not credited as the element’s discoverer; some earlier records claimed Ørsted had not entirely isolated Aluminium.
German chemist and scientist Friedrich Wöhler met Ørsted in 1827 CE and received specific permission to continue the aluminum research, which Ørsted “did not really have time” for.
Wöhler repeated Ørsted’s tests but did not identify any aluminium. He conducted a similar experiment, mixing potassium with anhydrous aluminum chloride and producing an aluminum powder.
After hearing about this, Ørsted suggested his own aluminum may have specifically contained potassium. Wöhler extended his research and, in 1845, was able to create small pieces of the metal and outlined some of its physical properties. Wöhler’s account of the properties indicates he produced impure Aluminium.
Other experts also failed to replicate Ørsted’s experiment, and Wöhler was extensively credited as the discoverer for many years. While Ørsted was not concerned with the discovery’s priority, Danes tried to illustrate he had obtained Aluminium. In 1921, the reason for the discrepancy between Wöhler’s and Ørsted’s experiments was discovered by Danish chemist Johan Fogh, who proved that Ørsted’s experiment was ultimately successful thanks to using a large amount of aluminum chloride and an amalgam with the low potassium content.
In 1936, scientists from American Aluminium producing company Alcoa recreated that experiment successfully.