Pittsburgh Icons: Alfred E. Hunt

How much aluminum is in your life? In your kitchen? How about in your car? Aluminum today is one of the most important metals available. Lighter than most steel, it enables us to build cheap, light metal objects that don’t rust easily. That said, it was almost unheard of before Alfred E. Hunt and a team of industrialists put science into action in Pittsburgh.

Alfred Hunt was an alumnus of MIT and was a trained metallurgist. Eventually, drawn to Pittsburgh’s metal industries, he would acquire a partnership in in the Pittsburgh Testing Laboratory with George Hubbard Clapp. At the time, aluminum was expensive, since it was almost all locked up in aluminum oxides which were very difficult to reduce to pure aluminum. Fortunately for history, Charles Martin Hall (and Paul Heroult at nearly the same time) invented a process that allowed aluminum to be easily stripped out of aluminum oxide. Like any good industrialist, Hunt saw the opportunity and jumped on it.

Along with other financial backers and support from other metal industry professionals, he formed the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (called Alcoa today). The company built the first industrial scale operation for the creation of usable aluminum from the aluminum oxides found commonly in nature. Suddenly, not only was aluminum commercially viable, but it was remarkably cheap.

As time has passed, aluminum has increased in importance. Improved casting and metallurgy has increased the applications for the common metal, but even today, the majority of aluminum is produced by Alcoa, the same company that Hunt founded. Alcoa is still one of the major industrial forces in the Pittsburgh region as well.

A small part of the Hunt fortune was used by his son, Roy A. Hunt, to build the Hunt Library on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University. According to the University lore, the library was something of a “gotcha” for the aluminum giants, building a library on the campus of a Steel magnate’s school. The building edifice is aluminum and glass, and the original donation stated that no trees could be planted between the library and street for many years so as to preserve the view of the library for all of the steel barons who had to pass through. The limitation on tree planting has only recently expired, and already new trees were planed on Carnegie Mellon’s expansive open grass commons. (At least, that is the story they told me when I was still a student there.)

Regardless, Alcoa is still a big force in the area. If you are interested in the history of Pittsburgh, Steel may be the old king, but Alcoa has outlived the steel industry and continues to thrive in today’s aluminum world.

Sources:

Roy A. Hunt Foundation: http://www.rahuntfdn.org/history_ALuminum.shtml

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