Thursday, 24 June 2004

Aluminum

This is how they write "aluminium" in North America. An American friend was asking me about this curious misspelling and it seems she had never heard the story of how it came about.

The word is an eponym, of course. A Staffordshire iron-founder named Joshua Aluminium invented in 1844 a process for extracting the metal from bauxite, and it was named after him. (Oddly enough, "bauxite" is also eponymous: a Canadian fur-trader called Jean-Emile Baux was the first man to discover the medicinal uses of the ore, and Baux poultices are still widely used in rural Alberta.)

Joshua patented his invention and during the rest of the nineteenth century he and his sons grew extremely rich from the proceeds; Joshua himself was knighted in 1887. By 1914 his grandson, also called Joshua, owned many thousands of acres in Staffordshire and was elevated to the peerage as the first Viscount Aluminium.

As a captain in the Staffordshire Yeomanry he fought at Mons and suffered serious injury, having half his face blown away by a shell. However, he recovered and emigrated to Canada in 1924 after selling his estate.

Later that year two distinguished members of the Edmonton Golf Club were discussing some of the new players and one of them remarked "Of course, Aluminium's only got one eye...". This was overheard by the club steward who totally misunderstood the context and repeated the comment to his wife, a young teacher at Edmonton High. She thought it meant that the usual spelling of "aluminium" was wrong. and from then on taught all her pupils to leave out the second "i". The new spelling soon caught on in Canada and, like all new Canadian ideas, was quickly taken up throughout the United States.

This is just one of the many fascinating tales which are told and re-told wherever metallurgists foregather. In a later post I shall tell the story of the Sheffield chemist Arthur Stainless, whose new type of steel revolutionised the cutlery trade in the 1890s.

More on aluminium

14 comments:

Marc said...

That's just brilliant!

Tony said...

Thank you, MSquare. First comment I've ever had from Texas.

Astolath said...

Trés amusing!

I generally find myself sneezing and itching when coming into contact with any form of metal. I think it's called a metallurgy...

Elle said...

You, sir, have a way with words.

Tony said...

Oh go on, I bet you say that to all the boys.

Grumio said...

Can any of Tony, MSquare, Astolath, Lynn or Anonymous come up with good explanations for (a) why Americans started writing dates back to front and (b) why they continue to do so? (Without of course insulting either American or non-American styles).

I'd really like to know.

Astolath said...

I tried to find the answer to your date format query and it took a significant amount of Googling!

The best explanation I could find was here: http://www.websters-dictionary-online.org/definition/english/da/date.html

It claims that the US date format is based on the original British format of mm/dd/yy. Ours changed to the European dd/mm/yy in the 1900s but the US one remained the same.

Sounds plausible to me, but I'd be interested to hear if anyone has a different explanation...

Grumio said...

Thank you for taking the trouble, Astolath. I think I was hoping that I would ignite a flame of indigation on the US side but nothing yet and I fear that the tame reason your hard Googling revealed may not yield the digital fistfight I was hoping to provoke. But there's time yet.

I hope Tony doesn't mind me using his forum for this purpose.

Tony said...

Well no, I don't mind. Just let me have your credit card details and I'll debit you with the appropriate fee.

Who are you, anyway, apart from being a crude and punning servant? Blogger profile with only an empty blog on it, very suspicious.

Tony said...

To Anonymous:
Yes, of course I've tried making rude suggestions. Complete waste of time. The only replies you get are from Ukrainian steel workers living in Pittsburgh.

Anonymous said...

And what's wrong with us?

I am reporting your remark to the offices of Local 814 here in Pittsburgh and you may hear something back.

Tony said...

Go and boil your head

Boggins said...

Aluminum - hey! back on-topic chaps...I fear Joshua Aluminium is a figment...
I heard that Sir Humphrey Davy (of lamp fame) discovered it in the early 1800s and wavered between calling it "aluminium" and "aluminum". We British stuck with his final choice while the Americans preferred the other.

Tony said...

Welcome, Boggins.
I should explain that veering off-topic with comments in Other Men's Flowers is positively encouraged, as its topics are often of stupefying dullness.
If you follow the link at the foot of this post you will see that the US did actually use aluminium until 1925.
By the way, Joshua Aluminium was certainly not a Figment: he was a Quaker.