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Norm Craig stands next to the aluminum statue of Charles Martin Hall that did not go to Pittsburgh, Today is Charles Martin Hall's birthday; he was born December 6, 1863.

PHOTOGRAPH BY LIZ FOX

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Chemistry Professor Norm Craig Helps Create Carnegie Art Museum Exhibit

By Debra Pillivant

 

"On February 23, 1886, in his woodshed laboratory at the family home on East College Street, Charles Martin Hall succeeded in producing aluminum metal by passing an electric current through a solution of aluminum oxide in molten cryolite. Aluminum was a semi-precious metal before Hall's discovery of this economical method to release it from its ore. His invention, which makes this light lustrous, and non-rusting metal readily available, was the basis of the aluminum industry in North America."

—from the plaque presented to Oberlin College by the American Chemical Society during the 1997 dedication of Oberlin as a National Historic Chemical Landmark

 

Other Oberlin College Web pages with information about Charles Martin Hall are maintained by the Department of Chemistry, the Oberlin College Archives, and the Office of College Relations.

DECEMBER 6, 2000--The new exhibition at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art, Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets, has more than one Oberlin connection. During the planning stages the curator, Sarah Nichols, got in touch with Norman Craig '53, Biggs Professor in the Natural Sciences Emeritus, to tap his knowledge of Charles Martin Hall, Oberlin Class of 1885, the American chemist who discovered an economical way to refine aluminum.

Craig gained worldwide notoriety in 1986 when he reenacted Hall's first successful experiment. The reenactment—which Craig says gave him "deep respect for Hall's achievement"— was part of Oberlin College's celebration of the 100th anniversary of Hall's discovery.

"Sarah contacted me about two years ago," says Craig. "She wanted to know which objects I thought should be included in the show. Originally, they wanted to include the aluminum statue of Charles Martin Hall, located here in Kettering. However, it's filled with concrete and is too heavy and awkward to travel. The replica of the aluminum square pyramid is part of the exhibit."

Oberlin owns a replica of the aluminum square pyramid that sits atop the Washington Monument. The original was displayed at Tiffany's in New York in 1884 before being placed on top of the monument as a corrosion-free lightning tip. The tip, produced by the old sodium-reduction method, was as valuable as a large piece of silver, costing $12 a pound at the time. Kaiser Aluminum commissioned the replica of the pyramid—cast 100 years later in the same Philadelphia foundry—and gave it to the College in 1984.

Craig says he was happy to help the museum prepare the exhibit but was not expecting to be invited to the exhibition's October 27 opening.

"It was a black-tie affair, and I had to rent a tux!" says Craig.

The exhibition includes 50 unusual aluminum objects from the personal collection of Jean Plateau, former chief engineer for Aluminium Pechiney, the French manufacturer of aluminum. Plateau's 15,000-item collection of aluminum objects dates from 1855 to the present.

On their way to attend the exhibit opening, Plateau, two other French engineers, and an aluminum historian with interests in aluminum made a trip to Oberlin to meet Craig, discuss Hall's experiments with him, and see traces of Hall's life and work. They also visited the Jewett House, where Frank Fanning Jewett, the Oberlin chemistry professor who was Hall's mentor, lived for 40 years.

One of the other visiting French scientists, Maurice Laparra—a former chief executive of Aluminium Pechiney now president of the French Institute for the History of Aluminum—has invited Craig to visit the institute and become one of its associate members. Craig has accepted both invitations but has not yet set a date for his trip to Paris.

Works by René Lalique, Jean Prouve, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Russel Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, Gio Ponti, Donald Judd, Shiro Kuramata, and Phillipe Starck are included in Aluminum by Design: From Jewelry to Jets.

After it closes at the Carnegie Museum of Art February 13, the exhibition travels to

  • Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (part of the Smithsonian Institution), New York City, March 20, 2001-July 15, 2001;
  • Musée Des Beaux-arts de Montréal, Montreal, Quebec, August 23, 2001-November 4, 2001;
  • Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, December 15, 2001-April 7, 2002;
  • Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, June 1, 2002-August 11,2002; and
  • Design Museum, London, England, October 7, 2002-January 3, 2003.

 

 

 

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