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 vapor

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

I don’t want to tell her no

if she’s window-shopping

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

so I could pour the bath—

the carbon rods crumbled

to pieces like fired coke

but there was no lustre

just warm grays, silicates mixed

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 carbon-lined.

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?

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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