Aluminum Maker Reaches Heady Milestone
Sixty years ago, all automotive wheels were made of steel. After flirting with wood-spoke wheels in the early days of the motorcar, manufacturers settled on steel for its toughness, durability and low cost. But steel wheels have a downside: most notably, their weight. The high mass of a steel wheel results in significant amounts of “unsprung weight” that entail penalties in the ride, handling and fuel economy. In 1948, Alcoa changed that paradigm forever. That was the year the pioneering company introduced the forged aluminum wheel, resulting in a stronger, lighter, more aesthetic wheel. (Commercial truckers still swear by their “Alcoas” for durability, fuel efficiency and an unbeatable shine on the road.) Numerous hot-rodders immediately adopted aluminum wheels for both their lightness and good looks, and soon the auto industry as a whole followed their lead. Now a significant percentage of auto wheels are made of aluminum.
That is just one of the contributions Alcoa, which is celebrating its 120th birthday this year, has made to the auto industry. In 1994, Alcoa and Audi teamed up to introduce the A8, the world’s first passenger car to use an all-aluminum body and space frame design to provide strength, performance, safety and comfort at a level never before achieved. Today, with fuel and emissions performance more critical than ever, automakers are turning to Alcoa for innovative solutions throughout the entire design and manufacturing process, and it is likely we will see significantly greater use of aluminum in vehicles as the industry moves forward.
None of this would have happened without the establishment of Alcoa, the company that created the modern aluminum industry. Since Oct. 1, 1888, the day it was incorporated as The Pittsburgh Reduction Company in (surprisingly enough) Pittsburgh, Alcoa has been inventing the future. Today the world’s largest aluminum producer operates approximately 350 facilities in 34 countries around the world with approximately 97,000 employees.
“It is the great work of our forefathers that allows us to be in an excellent position in many of our businesses,” said Alcoa President and CEO Klaus Kleinfeld. “We have a rich heritage and tremendous accomplishments. It is our part now to take it to the next level.”
The process of creating aluminum metal from aluminum oxide (alumina) through electrolysis was discovered in parallel by two men, Alcoa founder Charles Martin Hall of Oberlin, Ohio, and Paul L.T. Héroult of France. Hall’s patent for the process prevailed in the U.S. and survived numerous challenges. Though the Hall-Héroult process has been refined many times, its basic principles are still used today to produce nearly every ounce of aluminum smelted by aluminum producers worldwide. The then new process cut the price of aluminum dramatically and transformed aluminum from a precious metal into a strategic material whose properties of strength, lightness and durability would open up a world of new engineering possibilities.
Based on this discovery, a group of Pittsburgh entrepreneurs, including Hall, Captain Alfred Hunt, George H. Clapp and others, gathered to incorporate the company. Its original name, The Pittsburgh Reduction Company, was changed to the Aluminum Company of America, in 1907, and then to Alcoa, in 1999. Alcoa’s first employee, Arthur Vining Davis, worked with Hall to start production in a small plant in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. Davis stayed with the company for 69 years, serving for 29 of those years as its first Chairman of the Board. The company’s earliest products were aluminum pots and pans.
But the company quickly involved itself in transportation. The Wright Brothers’ historic flight took off with an Alcoa aluminum crankcase as integral part of the plane’s engine. Its lightness helped tip the balance of power and weight that changed the world of transportation forever. Since that day, Alcoa has played a key role in nearly every major innovation in aerospace aluminum, including such milestones as one of the world’s first successful passenger planes, the Ford Trimotor; the first transatlantic flight in 1927; the overwhelming rollout of American aircraft aluminum capacity that helped turn the tide of World War II; the world’s first passenger jet, Boeing’s 707; and today’s latest breakthrough, the Airbus A380 superjumbo.
Alcoa aluminum was first in space as well. Sputnik, the Russian satellite that shocked the world in 1957 and began the space race of the ‘50s and ‘60s, was built in a plant now owned and managed by Alcoa. And Alcoa alloys and propellants have helped make many American space milestones possible, from the first manned flight and the first moon landing to today’s Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs.
Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently about technology and innovation in the transportation industry.