The View from England: Napoleon Bonaparte helped aluminium take wing

A statue of Napoleon Bonaparte in Ajaccio, Corsica. Credit: eugenesergeev/iStock.

The British are not especially peaceful. Since the Act of Unification in 1707, the Kingdom of Great Britain has fought in over 120 wars across a total of 170 countries. During this period (and contrary to the popular perception) we have been allies with France (in 18 wars) almost as many times as we have fought them (20 wars). Perception is tainted, perhaps, by the Middle Ages, when five generations of English kings fought France in the 100 Years War (a series of conflicts from 1337 to 1453).

Taken over the past 300 years, our nearest neighbour has headed both the ally and foe listings. Next in the list of allies are the U.S. and Russia (siding with Britain in 11 and nine wars, respectively), with the next greatest foes being Spain and Russia (nine and six wars, respectively).

According to a poll in 2012 by the National Army Museum, our greatest enemy commanders* during this period were considered to be George Washington (American Revolutionary War; 1775-83), Michael Collins (the 20th century guerrilla campaign for Irish independence) and Napoleon Bonaparte (over 20 years of French hostility).

* Adolf Hitler was excluded as he never actually led an army in battle.

Unlike Washington and Collins, Napoleon ultimately failed in his political objectives, but is widely regarded as the greatest military leader of all time. There is another claim to fame; although Napoleon died four years before aluminium was first isolated, his family has strong associations with the light metal’s early years.

Napoleon dominated European affairs for two decades while leading France against a series of coalitions. He won most of these wars and only lost seven of his 60 battles (although an estimated 900,000 French soldiers died), building an empire that ruled over continental Europe before its final collapse in 1815.

May 5 marks the 200th anniversary of his death in 1821, aged 51, on the Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he was exiled following his defeat at the battle of Waterloo six years earlier. (The battle was actually at Braine-l’Alleud on the Mont-Saint-Jean escarpment, and was only called Waterloo because that was the nearby village from where the Duke of Wellington wrote his victory report.)

Napoleon’s only child, Franz Joseph, never actually ruled the empire but was styled Napoleon II. He died of tuberculosis in 1832, aged 21, and it was his cousin Louis-Napoleon (the son of Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother) who became leader of the short-lived Second French Empire as Napoleon III.

The last monarch of France, Napoleon III (1808-73) was an early proponent of aluminium, which he hoped to use for armour to give his soldiers an edge in battle. The emperor funded the work of Henri Sainte-Claire Deville, who initiated the first industrial production of aluminium in 1856. It was a slow and inefficient process, however, and Napoleon III is reported to have used aluminium utensils for his favoured guests, while everyone else at the imperial dinner table had to make do with gold.

As an aside; when he was deposed, Napoleon III fled to England, and his son, the Prince Imperial, was killed by Zulus in 1879, aged 23, fighting in South Africa for the British army. His famous ancestor would not have been amused!

Aluminium had been named in 1808 by the English chemist Sir Humphry Davy after alum (‘bitter salt’ in Latin), which had been used throughout Europe since the 16th century in the leather industry (as a tanning agent) and in medicine. A cup made of an unknown metal (apparently looking like silver, but too light to be silver) was presented in the first century AD to the Roman emperor Tiberius. By that time, Chinese ornaments are also reported to have been made of an alloy consisting of 85% aluminium.

In the periodic table, aluminium is perched between boron (the only non-metallic element of group 13) and gallium. Although aluminium is the third most abundant element in Earth’s crust (8.3%), after only oxygen and silicon, and well ahead of iron (5.6%), it is not found free in nature. Once considered a ‘precious’ metal, it now has myriad uses.

Nearly all of the world’s aluminium is obtained by smelting aluminium oxide that has been derived from refining bauxite ore. Pure aluminium is easily formed, machined and cast, and can be alloyed with a variety of metals. It is also a good conductor of electricity and an excellent reflector of radiation. It is used to make cans, wrapping foil, household utensils, and has numerous applications in the vehicle, aircraft and construction industries.

In 1821, geologist Pierre Berthier discovered reddish clay rock deposits in France. The rock was named bauxite after Les Baux, the area where it was found.

Danish chemist Hans-Christian Oersted is acknowledged as the first to isolate aluminium in 1825, but Germany’s Friedrich Wöhler is generally regarded as the first to secure a pure sample of the element in 1827. Economic production of the metal was made possible in 1886 following independent research into electrolysis by the American Charles Hall and the Frenchman Paul Héroult, and the following year by Austrian Karl Josef Bayer’s development of a chemical process to extract alumina from bauxite.

Duralumin, a key aluminium alloy, was invented in 1909 by German scientist Alfred Wilm. By adding copper, magnesium and manganese, the alloy significantly exceeded aluminium in strength, hardness and elasticity, meaning it quickly became the main material used in aviation.

Another critical moment for the aluminium industry came in 1920, when a group of scientists under the leadership of Carl Soderberg from Norway invented a new aluminium production process that made the Hall-Héroult method much cheaper.

With the onset of World War II, aluminium became a key strategic metal, and by 1954 aluminium had become the most produced non-ferrous metal, surpassing copper.

According to the International Aluminium Institute, primary aluminium production reached 65.3 million tonnes in 2020, compared with only 19.5 million tonnes in 1990. At the recent price of US$2,375 per tonne (US$1.08 per pound) the annual value of aluminium production is now some US$155 billion. This is only US$35 billion less than the annual valuations for copper and gold, which are now neck-and-neck at around US$190 billion each per annum.

Just think what Napoleon could have done with aluminium.


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