OBERLIN, OH—This year, Oberlin College and Alcoa are celebrating the 125th anniversary of the company’s incorporation as the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, Alcoa’s predecessor. The company was launched in 1888 with technology developed by Alcoa’s cofounder, Oberlin graduate Charles Martin Hall. Two years earlier, with the help of Oberlin chemistry professor Frank Jewett, Hall unlocked a commercially viable process for extracting aluminum metal from ore.
The discovery of an electrochemical method for extracting aluminum metal from ore is a technological development that has transformed the world, leading to widespread use of aluminum in industrial and consumer products. Hall’s invention and Alcoa have made thousands of everyday products lighter, more fuel efficient, and recyclable. The revolution started with a close mentoring relationship between student and professor—the type of collaboration that is the hallmark of an Oberlin education in the 21st century.
In the months following his graduation, Hall set up his laboratory in a woodshed attached to his family home on East College Street. After many unsuccessful experiments with chemical methods of extraction, Hall and Jewett turned to electric current. On February 23, 1886, Hall produced aluminum metal by passing an electric current through a solution of aluminum oxide in molten cryolite. On July 9, 1886, he filed for a patent for the Process of Reducing Aluminum by Electrolysis.
After being awarded his patent, Hall continued to develop his process, and later sold the rights of his invention to the Aluminum Company of America, now known as Alcoa. The company brought Hall’s process to a commercial scale.
Hall’s legacy benefited Oberlin College in many ways. A generous benefactor of the college, he made several direct gifts, and his estate left more than $10 million for the college endowment, as well as money for an auditorium.
Alcoa, along with the Alcoa Foundation, helps educate and train the next generation of innovators through global and local partnerships, particularly in the areas of environment and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
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