The Washington monument was adorned with a 1000 oz tip of pure aluminum, the prized metal of the day.
Precious metals are commonly defined by their rarity in the composition of the earth’s crust. However, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes metals become precious due to high demand and perceived value, or because of the difficulty in obtaining them, Aluminum being a fascinating example of this. Although it is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, even more so than iron, it is extremely difficult to refine from ore. Aluminum was first isolated in by Friedrich Wohler, who managed to refine a few flakes. In the following decades, aluminum was introduced to the market as precious metal, it’s popularity caught on, and for a period of time, was more valuable than gold. Napoleon III even had a prized set of aluminum cutlery reserved for guests of honor, while the plebeians dined with gold and silver tableware. By the turn of the century, however, electricity allowed for the industrial refinement of aluminum, production went from a few ounces per month to 50 pounds a day in the space of a few months. The price of aluminum collapsed, in the mid 1880’s aluminum fetched a handsome $550 per pound. Fifty years later, not even adjusting for inflation, the same amount would have cost 25 cents.
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