Oberlin College

Volume 7, number 11


Thursday 13 February 1986

Oberlin, Ohio

Craig's and Cummings' experiments to recall Hall's

On Wednesday Norman Craig will demonstrate Charles Martin Hall's original experiment that led to the discovery of the electrolytic process for extracting aluminum from its oxide, and Conrad Cummings will use some of the sounds produced by this electrolysis in the premiere of his niusical work Light Metal. The demonstration and the music, along with the opening of an exhibition of Hall memorabilia in Mudd, will begin the centennial celebra tion of Hall's discovery. A formal rededication of the Hall House, currently undergoing an exterior renovation, and an exhibition of works submitted to an aluminum art-object competition spon sored by the museum, will take place 20 April.

Craig, who is professor of chemistry, and Cummings, assistant professor of music theory and technology, will make their presentations in Kettering's Bryant Lecture Hall. The apparatus and on-going process of electrolysis will be on view in the afternoon; those who come to see it between 1 and 6 pm will hear, as they come and go, Cummings' electronic sound installation. At 8 pm Craig will demonstrate Hall's method while delivering a lecture entitled "Charles Martin Hall: His Mind, His Mentor, and His Metal."

Evolving musical work

Cummings' complex composition will be in continual evolution as it is played. It will combine sounds from the depths of the crucible, noises from people moving around the apparatus and from within the apparatus itself (these sounds will be picked up by 20 high-sensitivity microphones placed around the room), and music from Beethoven and Wagner recordings made during Hall's lifetime. Hall was an accomplished pianist who was particularly fond of Beethoven and Wagner.





Above and left:
Norman Craig prepares his demonstration of Charles Martin Hall's original experiment, using cryolite, bauxite and crucibles.






"Light Metal " is a sound installation in a very literal sense," says Cummings. "While all of the equipment and procedures used will be tested prior to the day of process, their actual assembly into the final piece will happen concurrently with the setup of the experiment--with all the unpredictability of final results that this entails. This can literally be called 'a music experiment.'"

Wednesday's third event is the opening of "Hall and Oberlin: Memorabilia and Archival Material," an exhibition continuing through 1 June in Mudd. Among the items on display will be several of the first globules of aluminum produced by Hall, on loan to Oberlin from Alcoa. These globules are known in the aluminum industry as "the crown jewels." A replica of the 1884 aluminum square pyramid first displayed at Tiffany's in New York and then placed on top of the Washington Monument as a corrosion-free lightning-rod tip also will be displayed. The original pyramid was produced by the old sodium-reduction method and was so expensive in 1884 that it was considered as valuable as a large piece of silver. The replica was cast 100 years later in the same foundry that cast the original. Kaiser Aluminum, which commissioned the replica, is lending it to the college.

Among the other items on display will be family portraits, including some of Hall's sister Julia, who encouraged Hall in his work and who provided crucial eyewitness testimony in the eventual award of the US patent rights to his discovery; letters from Hall to his class-mates; gradebooks showing Hall's academic records while a student at Oberlin, and memorabilia from the college's 50th-anniversary observance of Hall's discovery.

The aluminum-object competition/exhibition, entitled "The Great Al u min um Object Contest," is open to individuals and groups, who can enter works in any of 10 categories. Entries may be any size, shape, or form, but 90 percent of the surface area must be aluminum. The works will be exhibited from 1 to 5 pm April 12 and 13 in the lobby of the Carnegie Building; awards will be presented at 3 pm 20 April during the rededication of the Hall House on East College Street.

Entry forms can be obtained after Wednesday at the museum, at the main desk of Wilder Hall, in the art department office, and at several other locations.

Precious metal

Aluminum--the lightweight, highly malleable metal that is a staple of today's automotive, aviation, aerospace, and electric-power industries--was of no interest to the country's top industrialists 100 years ago because the cost of producing it was prohibitively high. Hall discovered the inexpensive process for extracting aluminum from its ore on 23 February 1886, less than eight months after his graduation from Oberlin College. The mentor who guided him to ward his successful experiment (in a woodshed behind his family's home) was chemistry professor Frank Fanning Jewett.

Hall went on to co-found the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, which later became known as Alcoa, and died a multimillionaire in 1914 (Observer 24 November 1983). He bequeathed one-third of his estate to the college. Nearly half of Oberlin's current endowment of $161.7 million can be traced to the Hall bequest.

Hall's continuing influence can be felt not only in the Oberlin of today but also in higher education worldwide. One-sixth of his estate went to Berea College in Kentucky; another one-sixth went to the American Missionary Association, largely for the education of blacks; and the remaining one-third went to fund education in Asia and the eastern Mediterranean nations. In all, some 22 institutions received endowment funds through this last one-third chunk of the estate, including the Harvard-Yenching Asian Studies Institute and the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association.