Oberlin College Archives


Collection, 1882-1985


Charles Martin Hall, chemist, manufacturer, and Oberlin College benefactor, was born December 6, 1863 in Thompson, Ohio. He was son of Rev. Heman Bassett Hall (1823-1910, A.B. 1847, B.D. 1850, A.M. 1866) and Sophronia H. Brooks Hall (1827-1885, Class of 1850, Lit. Course).

In 1873 the Hall family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where Charles Martin Hall took his preparatory work in Oberlin High School. His high school education was supplemented by one year in the Oberlin Academy including lessons in the Conservatory of Music. He enrolled in Oberlin College in 1880, and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1885. Oberlin College awarded him the honorary A.M. in 1893, and honorary L.L.D. in 1910. He was a member of the Oberlin College Board of Trustees from 1905 to 1914.

Hall was influenced by his college chemistry professor, Frank Fanning Jewett (1844-1926), who challenged and encouraged Hall in his ongoing scientific experiments. Jewett is popularly credited with turning Hall's attention to aluminum through a classroom challenge. However, this story appears to contain more myth than fact.

After graduation Hall continued the work begun with Jewett. Working in his Oberlin woodshed laboratory with encouragement from his older sister Julia Brainerd Hall (1859-1926), he pursued the idea that aluminum could be reduced from its ores through electrolysis. On February 23, 1886, Hall successfully electrolyzed alumina in a mixture of cryolite and aluminum fluoride, producing several small globules of aluminum metal. On July 9, 1886, he filed a patent for "The Process of Reducing Aluminum by Electrolysis."

In July 1888 his application was found to be in interference with the application filed April 23, 1886 by Paul L.T. Heroult (1863-1914) of France. Independently the two inventors made the same discovery at virtually the same time. Under United States patent law patent rights rested on proof of the date of discovery. Through evidence and testimony Hall was able to establish priority and was awarded patent rights in The United States.

Hall negotiated an option with the Cowles Electric Smelting and Aluminum Company, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. Cowles manufactured and sold aluminum and copper alloys produced by the electric arc smelting process. The option allowed Hall to develop the commercial feasibility of his process and gave Cowles the chance to purchase his rights. Frustrated by an apparent lack of support, Hall left the Cowles Company in July 1888.

Through Romaine Cole, a sympathetic salesman at Cowles, Hall met the noted metallurgist Captain Alfred E. Hunt (1855-1899) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Hall and Cole produced a 22-page document on the advantages of the "Hall Process," which they presented to Hunt. On the basis of that document, Hunt became one of the principal investors in the Pittsburgh Reduction Company formed in 1888.

Hall continued his developmental process, now more favored by supportive backing and adequate electrical power. The pilot plant for the Pittsburgh Reduction Company opened in Pittsburgh in September, 1888. Arthur Vining Davis (1867-1962) was hired to assist Hall. By Thanksgiving Day 1888 they succeeded in producing limited amounts of pure aluminum. The pilot plant gave way to new production facilities, based now on the internal resistive heating method which capitalized on the increased availability of electricity. Plants were established in Niagara, New York and New Kensington, Pennsylvania. The Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh was a major investor in the expansion.

In 1891, the Pittsburgh Reduction Company filed suit against the Cowles Electric Smelting and Aluminum Company on the grounds of patent infringement. Judge William Howard Taft (1857-1930)ruled in favor of Hall and the originality of his invention in 1893. Cowles appealed the decision and filed a new motion on the basis of their ownership of technology provided in the patents of Charles Bradley, which appeared to anticipate the internal resistive heating method. In 1911, after lengthy proceedings Cowles was awarded damages for infringement by the Pittsburgh Reduction Company on portions of the Bradley Patents.

In 1907 the Pittsburgh Reduction Company was renamed the Aluminum Company of America, later shortened to ALCOA. The success of ALCOA following the Cowles settlement allowed Hall to return to his interest in music and art. These interests were manifested in his collection of oriental rugs and porcelain, and enjoyment of music. Hall also remained active in research and development, a passion which for him never ended. He filed several new patents for improvements in the production of aluminum, including one registered four years after his death. In 1911 he was awarded the prestigious Perkin Medal for outstanding achievement in applied chemistry. Hall died in Daytona, Florida on December 27, 1914.

Charles Martin Hall was a generous benefactor of Oberlin College. During his lifetime he made several direct gifts to the College relating to his personal interests such as the care of the campus and grounds. From his estate the college received over $10 million dollars for the endowment of Oberlin College, and left money for the erection of an auditorium in remembrance of his mother, Sophronia Brooks Hall. Others benefited from his legacy as well, including Berea College, the American Missionary Association, and educational programs in Asia and the Balkans, including the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association and the Harvard-Yenching Institute.

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