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?
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.