Prior to the 1880s, aluminum was a precious metal worth more than gold. During those times aluminum was extremely difficult and costly to refine, and all but impossible to accomplish on a mass production scale.
These factors not only made aluminum more valuable than gold – they also contributed to aluminum’s appeal as a prestigious and luxurious metal. In 1855, aluminum bars were a featured attraction at the then world-famous Exposition Universelle de Paris. During his reign as Emperor, Napoleon III of France allegedly owned a collection of aluminum plates and flatware that were strictly reserved for entertaining only the most esteemed guests. In 1884, a capstone made with 100 ounces of pure aluminum was set on the great Washington Monument.
But today, we use aluminum to wrap up old food. What happened? While aluminum was difficult to refine, it’s not a geological rarity, like gold. Aluminum is actually the most abundant element in the earth’s crust and the third-most common element (after oxygen and silicon) on the entire planet. The development of the Hall-Héroult electrolytic process in 1886 completely solved this problem by making aluminum smelting cheap, fast, and easily adaptable to industrial-scale production. This combined with aluminum’s commonality reduced its value and eliminated its precious metal status.
Originally valued at about $1200 per kg in the 1850s, aluminum dropped all the way to $1 per kg by the 1890s. Talk about a market shake up! While the drop in value may have stung the aluminum investors of yore (if there were any), the boon to humanity cannot be understated. Thanks to aluminum, we have power lines, airplanes, food and beverage containers, and so much more. What would Napoleon think of that?