This is part of a series I’m working on that looks at the history of aluminum, from its discovery as a metal to its mass production. The poems are connected loosely by their shared themes, but they don’t have to be read in any order.

This poem deals with Charles Martin Hall (1863-1914), the inventor of the Hall–Héroult Process, which was the first commercially viable process of getting pure aluminum. Hall used electrolysis to reduce alumina salts into aluminum. The process is still used today for mass production of aluminum. I use the –ium spelling in the poem, as that’s how it appears in Hall’s patents. As always, thanks for reading!

 

U.S. patent #400,664

 

Father used to accompany Mother

after choir practice as she returned

to Ladies’ Hall most afternoons,

and they walked slower than grass grows

because he couldn’t come in with her,

they called it the “Oberlin Step,”

all the couples did it when

the campus became coed.

Mother said their time in Jamaica

during Father’s Mission,

he would bring her fresh fruit

every morning before she woke,

for ten years, he would walk

to the nearest vendor, even climb

the tamarind trees himself, or bring

a half dozen june plums

in the hammock of his shirt tails.

Perhaps Josephine and I,

we could be in love like them,

and live in a red-brick house

with a nice Italian porch.

 

But the problem of this metal,

first it was the fluorides,

Professor Jewett was keen to notice

fluorides wouldn’t absorb water

in the air like Grӓtzel’s chlorides,

but they fuse at higher heats—

all those Bunsen batteries

lined up like artillery shells,

Jewett and I cast the zinc ourselves,

quartered in the lab all week,

I forgot Josephine’s recital,

but it taught us the alumina

wouldn’t reduce properly in water,

so we turned to fluorides,

I made the trip to Cleveland

and bought a bag of cryolite from

Grasselli’s, the same used for soda-ash

in the glass mill in Cincinnati.

As a flux it made the ore melt

as pretty as sugar on the stove.

 

Of course we needed a new stove, too,

the coal furnace in the shed wouldn’t do.

I found a gasoline one with a single burner,

a widow who used it for her smoothing-iron

was going to live in the poorhouse,

and if I didn’t get it right away

it was heading for the scrapyard.

I took my sister to see about it

that weekend, and she said,

“What about Josephine?” because

she asked about me in passing,

and I said, “Would you prefer

a suitor who hadn’t done a thing

in his whole life?” Julia said not

to worry about those things, but it’s true.

Father had the parsonage, and God’s

good favor when Mother found him.

First you have to lay up your fortune, first

you have to show them you’re serious, and

I don’t want to tell her no

if she’s window-shopping and sees a dress,

if she asks for plumbed water

in our red-brick house.

 

It took weeks to set up that stove,

and fashion a shell of iron

for the crucible to nest—

I thought I had it at last,

after such a cold winter in that shed,

Julia held the frying pan for me

so I could pour the bath—the carbon rods

crumbled apart like fired coke,

but there was no lustre to it,

just a warm gray, silicates mixed

most likely from the crucible’s clay.

Father always says that life is about

perfecting the image of God in you,

you have to find it in yourself and

chip away at everything else, the way

a sculptor finds his statue in the slab

of marble, like Michelangelo did

when he found David;

that’s what electricity does to ore,

reduces it to pure substances,

that’s what six years of experiments

have done to refine this process of mine,

to make a perfect thing out of

something else perfect.

 

This time the crucible is lined in carbon,

I’ve added fluoride of aluminium

to the cryolite to lower the fusing

temperature, and hopefully

keeping the electrodes intact,

borrowed another battery

from Jewett that I waggoned

through the February sleet

thinking of Josephine in her

bottle green, high-necked bustle,

thinking also of Mother,

and would she watch from heaven

silvery beads of aluminium

clustering like a vine of grapes

upon the crucible lid,

and would she know I intend to marry

the prettiest girl at Oberlin

just as soon as my ship comes in?


R. Charboneau

You can read the first poem, about a Bauxite Miner in Guinea, here.

And the second poem, about Humphry Davy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, here.

3 thoughts on “Studies in Aluminum III

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