A friend commented to me one time that he thought gold and silver would go the way of aluminum. After all, aluminum was once considered a precious metal. I did some research on it and found out he was right. Here’s a quick synopsis of what I found and why I disagree with his conclusion.
The history of aluminum goes back to 1761 when it was first called alumina.
Until 1884, aluminum products were extremely rare. In fact, most people considered aluminum a “precious metal” and it was more expensive than silver, gold, platinum, or any other precious metal used today.
In the mid 1800’s, aluminum was considered more precious than gold, silver or platinum.
For a while, aluminum bars were exhibited alongside the French crown jewels at the Exposition Universelle in1855. Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have used aluminum plates for his most honored guests at dinner.
Scientists suspected that an unknown metal existed in alumina as early as 1787, but they did not have a way to extract it until 1825. Hans Christian Oersted, a Danish chemist, was the first to produce tiny amounts of aluminum.
Two years later, Friedrich Wöhler, a German chemist, developed a different way to obtain the metal. By 1845, he was able to produce samples large enough to determine some of aluminum’s basic properties. Wöhler’s method was improved in 1854 by Henri Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville, a French chemist.
Deville’s process allowed for the commercial production of aluminum. As a result, the price of the metal dropped from around $1200 per kilogram in 1852 to around $40 per kilogram in 1859. However, the metal still remained too expensive to be widely used.
In 1884, only 125 pounds of aluminum were produced in the U.S. Aluminum is a very common metal, making up some 8% of the Earth’s crust. It reacts readily with oxygen, and is almost never found in nature in its pure state.
In 1886, a Frenchman Paul Heroult and American Charles Martin Hall, working independently, figured out a way to extract aluminum from aluminum oxide.
Then on April 2, 1889, Charles Martin Hall patented an inexpensive method for the production of aluminum, which brought the metal into wide commercial use. His method of processing the metal ore was to pass an electric current through a non-metallic conductor to separate the very conductive aluminum.
In 1888, together with financier Alfred E. Hunt, Charles Martin Hall founded the company now known as the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA). Because the separation of aluminum from its ore is so electrically intensive, the commercial production of aluminum wasn’t practical until the production of cheap electricity also became practical.
By 1891, more than 300 tons of aluminum was produced in the U.S. and it was used to make all kinds of products. At the start of the 1900s, the output of aluminum increased to about 8,000 tons.
By 1914, Charles Martin Hall had brought the cost of aluminum down to 18 cents a pound, and it was no longer considered a precious metal.
Given the history of aluminum, could gold and silver ever become nonprecious metals? Even if someone discovered cheaper ways to process silver and gold neither could be considered common elements, the way aluminum is.
No rare American coins have been minted in aluminum the way they have in gold and silver. Even in the day when aluminum was considered precious, the US Mint never used it for coinage.
In 2012, about 50,000,000 tons of aluminum was being produced worldwide.
Current annual world silver production is 787,000,000 OUNCES, not tons.
World gold production is around 80,000,000 OUNCES a year.
Both American gold coins and American silver coins have compelling reasons to buy them. I buy both. I DON’T have any interest in aluminum coins though.
I recently came across some additional information on US aluminum coins. A few were struck in 1868. They fall into the category of pattern coins, struck by the mint to check dies and/or materials. Each of these sets contains all the copper, nickel, silver and gold denominations of U.S. coins minted in 1868 struck in their most precious metal at the time, aluminum.
Of the few surviving aluminum pattern sets, the Garrett one is the most famous. It contains sixteen pieces in the original display case. For the collector of pattern coins, a complete set of pattern coins in aluminum is like a wonderful fantasy, which actually exists.
I now have an interest in some aluminum coins, though I still won’t be buying any, anytime soon.
If you are interested in buying gold or silver bullion at the lowest price, check out BullionVault.
If you are interested in learning more about rare American coin, or foreign coin collecting and investing see NumisMaster from Krause Publications.