13. Aluminium: War Of The Words

Listen to some of the pointless arguments caused by element 13, and take a look at the argument-filled history of one sharp aluminum point.

Featured above: The Great Pyramid of America that would have held George Washington’s remains.

Show Notes

Heavy Metal: Morgan, from Verne’s novel, should have known better than to suggest copper after iron had been ruled out. Copper is three places to the right of iron on the periodic table, and almost 10% heavier than iron!

No Further Questions: The Wikipedia page for aluminium has been locked, banning further edits from anonymous contributors.

“Pyramidion” is one of those interesting words that has a very specific definition: The little pyramid at the top of an obelisk or pyramid. The one pictured above is the very one from the Washington Monument, during its short tenure at Tiffany’s in New York.

And here is Greenough’s version of Washington. Really, what remains to say that hasn’t been said already?

And below are two other possibilities for the Washington Monument: The originally proposed obelisk with colonnade, and a possible redesign following the twenty-year hiatus. (Click for big.)

Episode Script

The Americans decided that Florida would make a better launch site than Texas, and the crew of three embarked on their mission: a 242-hour journey to the moon and back, propelled by state-of-the-art equipment called the Columbiad. Upon their return, the crew safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean for retrieval by the USS Susquehanna.1

It was a phenomenal feat of scientific ingenuity, especially considering the year was 1865.

Of course, this saga did not unfold in real life, but within the pages of Jules Verne’s work of early science fiction, From The Earth To The Moon. He didn’t get all the details right — for instance, his craft was launched by a giant planetary gun, rather than a self-propelled rocket — but considering Verne wrote the book a full century before the real moon landing, his predictions were eerily accurate. He even estimated the weight of the spacecraft and cost of the project within about 20% of the actual figures.

Part of the reason is because Verne performed exhaustive research using the most accurate information available at the time. And that is almost certainly why his characters employed an amazing new material in the construction of their spacecraft. Cast-iron, it was clear, would be far too heavy to fly.

What is to be done, then?” said Elphinstone, with a puzzled air.

“Employ another metal other than iron.”

“Copper?” said Morgan.

“No; that would be too heavy. I have better than that to offer.”

“What then?” asked the major.

“Aluminium!” replied Barbicane.

“Aluminium?” cried his three colleagues in chorus.

“Unquestionably, my friends. This valuable metal possesses the whiteness of silver, the indestructibility of gold, the tenacity of iron, the fusibility of copper, the lightness of glass. It is easily wrought, is very widely distributed, forming the base of most of the rocks, is three times lighter than iron, and seems to have been created for the express purpose of furnishing us with the material for our projectile.”2

Everything Verne wrote in that passage is true. And that’s why, when NASA was building vehicles for the Apollo mission, they also turned to aluminum.3 In fact, just about the only thing Verne didn’t predict was the impassioned transatlantic debate surrounding the exact spelling of element 13.

You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’re quibbling over aluminium, or, aluminum.

Many people find they have a strong emotional reaction to hearing one of those two words, so I apologize for ruffling any feathers. It’s an understandable reaction: You spend your whole life wrapping leftovers in aluminum foil, or cooking soup in an aluminium pot, and then some pompous jerk comes along and tells you no, that’s wrong, of course it’s spelled the opposite way, how on earth could you be so unforgivably stupid?

Of course, there is no better place to turn for pedantic disagreement than the internet. The “talk” page for Wikipedia’s article on aluminium is a particularly rich archive of a debate that extends back well over a decade, cataloging more than 45,000 words of passionate opinion on the spelling alone.

For reference, that’s about the length of The Great Gatsby, and features even more characters motivated by spite.4

Let’s enjoy some actual quotes from that page, like this typical start to the argument by some anonymous contributor:5

This article’s title is misspelled. It should be aluminum.” –70.245.189.11 (talk) 22:27, 8 October 2010 (UTC)

That’s a strong lead: Feigned ignorance of the opposition’s very existence. Another anonymous editor offers this exemplary rejoinder:

I, on behalf of the billion-strong population of India, hereby vote Aluminium. Yay democracy wins!”  125.21.243.66 (talk) 10:46, 1 August 2008 (UTC)

Well, it’s hard to argue with democracy.

While their ardor certainly comes across, our interlocutors here have failed to explain their logic, leaving speculation up to us. Perhaps the periodic table itself can provide context.

If you throw a dart at the periodic table, you’re likely to hit something that ends in -ium. A majority of the elements have this suffix, most of them metals, but also a couple nonmetals like helium and selenium. In fact, all of the elements in aluminium’s group end in -ium… well, except for the one right above it, boron. But boron is a metalloid, so that’s okay.

But it’s not like this suffix is consistent among metals. There’s iron, nickel, and cobalt, for instance. Granted, those have been known since antiquity, so they’ve inherited their names from a pre-chemistry era. But metals like tantalum and molybdenum actually share aluminum’s plain -um suffix, and nobody’s arguing for “tantalium” or “molybdenium,” so the argument for consistency is looking weak.

Perhaps there’s some historical context that can inform our debate? Let’s check back in with our Wikipedia friends to see what they have to say.

the guy who isolated it settled on ALUMINUM, therefore it is ALUMINUM, and prissy-pants editors who think they know better should keep their extra i to themselves.” — Preceding unsigned comment added by 173.25.250.112 (talk) 00:14, 2 August 2012 (UTC)

Hoo boy.

Presumably, this contributor is talking about Humphry Davy, since Davy originally suggested the name “alumium” before deciding that “aluminum” was a better name.

But there are a couple problems with that idea: First of all, Davy didn’t isolate aluminum. He tried, but failed, as his “fry it with electricity” method worked better with elements on the left side of the periodic table than the right side. The honor goes to either Hans Christian Orsted or Friedrich Wohler — records are unclear who really succeeded first.

It’s also not clear that Davy actually settled on “aluminum.” An anonymous British chemist criticized the name, saying, “Aluminium, for we shall take the liberty of writing the word, in preference to aluminum, which has a less classical sound.”6 This appears to have been pretty convincing to a lot of British chemists — including, possibly, Davy himself. Notes from an 1811 lecture indicate that he might have used both names interchangeably.7

But more importantly, this is not logically consistent ground to stand on. Davy also proposed the names silicium, magnium, and glucium for silicon, magnesium, and beryllium, respectively.8 9

Many of the elements have had several different names over the years, so unless we’re prepared to overhaul the entire periodic table, the “authorial intent” approach is no help at all.

Later history is similarly fruitless. While the rest of the world latched on to “aluminium” pretty quickly, Americans have gone back and forth with “aluminum” for years. The -ium suffix was actually more popular in the US until Charles Martin Hall invented a process that made element 13 cheap and accessible for anyone. While documenting his process for the patent office, Hall universally called the metal “aluminium,” but when advertising to the public, that second “i” mysteriously disappeared.10

That might have actually been a typo at first, but Hall ran with it. “Aluminum” has a certain ring to it that might remind the buying public of another valuable metal, “platinum.” Even though Hall was almost single-handedly responsible for crashing the aluminum market, he was happy to retain the image of opulence.

So that gives us one grumpy letter to the editor, and one very successful advertising campaign. Either of those seems like a shaky leg to stand on. But it seems a whole lot better than whatever’s happening with our Wikipedians.

For the most part, they seem less interested in pursuing these nuances of history than definitively winning the debate. One commenter writes,

I’ve probably got more degrees than you anyway ;P 212.159.117.182 (talk) 13:55, 6 January 2009

Another has peered so deeply into their own navel that they’ve become quite lost inside of it, asking,

What is “English”? Wiki-Ed 01:13, 20 November 2005

Another collaborator decides that the time has come for more extreme measures:

I won’t restate any of the arguments listed above, as they clearly fall on deaf ears. Instead, I will vote in the only meaningful way I can. I refuse to donate to Wikipedia until ALUMINUM is recognized as the proper spelling -anonymous, 3 Dec 2014

Around this point, some people plaintively cry for peace. User “Grammar’s Li’l Helper” calls the conversation, “A War Between Brothers,”11 and Spawn Man offers a desperate plea:

This dispute over the spelling of things is getting out of hand! we should just accept that not everyone is going to say everything or spell everything the same. … Honestly, if we spent half our time working on the dead ends & stubs on this site, this site would be better than ever before. But that’s just my opinion. P.S: (I didn’t find your comment about Adolf Hitler offensive, just highly irrelevant to the topic). Spawn Man 11:42, 7 September 2005 (UTC)

Sadly, this sensible reply fell on deaf ears before some other rabble-rouser chimed in and the whole thing started all over again.

This vexing situation is exactly why the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry exists. This is a matter concerning chemistry, but it is impossible to decide by any scientific method. In a case like this, their word is the last word. And while our overlords reign supreme, they’re not unreasonable.

For 25 years, the IUPAC has listed “aluminium” as the standard international name for element 13 — and noted that “aluminum” is a perfectly acceptable variant! An American scientist writing scientific papers might want to use “aluminium” for consistency’s sake, but no one is going to chemistry jail for saying “aluminum.”

Clarity is important to ensure effective communication between individuals, but taken to an extreme, “correct English” becomes about something else. Especially when those corrections happen in public. Those belligerent pedants who would have the gutters run red with ink are almost always trying to assert their cultural or intellectual superiority over a person, often while avoiding the substance of whatever that person said.12

We saw a lot of this on Aluminium’s talk page, but it pops up everywhere. If someone says, “The candy factory was decimated by the bubblegum explosion,” most people will say, “What a tragedy,” or, “That’s so sad,” or, “We have a candy factory?” But there will always be one person who says, “Oh, really? The bubblegum explosion reduced the candy factory by ten percent? Because that’s what it means to decimate something. Look it up! Hahmmmm!”

If the point of your language is to communicate an idea clearly to another individual, then just call element 13 by whatever name comes to you most naturally. There is no doubt that you will be understood. But if you’re trying to convey a smug sense of superiority, end the conversation, and out yourself as the most intolerable person in the room, by all means — keep up the good fight.


We’ll probably never be rid of those folks who just can’t resist a pointless argument. So it seems fitting that there exists a landmark attraction built by people who despised each other, and stands in adamant celebration of discord, gridlock, and resentful compromise. It’s made of mismatched stones, was abandoned halfway through construction, and it’s unavoidably phallic.

It’s unfortunate for its namesake, but there really is no better memorial to polemics than the Washington Monument.

As a young country, America fought hard for legitimacy in the world’s eyes. In part, that meant trying to imitate the aesthetics of ancient civilizations that were already held in high esteem. That meant monuments.

George Washington was an obvious choice. Plans to memorialize the first President of the United States began while the man was still alive, even before he was actually elected president.13

Historical Egypt was very trendy at the time, so the first proposal, put forth in the 1790s, was an enormous pyramid that would house murals and statues honoring Washington, and possibly even his remains — just as a pharaoh would have been entombed — though presumably there was no plan to mummify him.14 15

As president, Washington decided not to spend public funds on a memorial to himself, so the idea didn’t really get off the ground until 1832. It was the centennial year of Washington’s birth, and the absence of any kind of memorial was starting to look downright inappropriate.

Congress tackled the problem head-on, commissioning Horatio Greenough to build a statue of Washington. What he created was, to put it mildly, unexpected.

Named “Enthroned Washington,” the marble sculpture portrays George Washington as a shirtless titan, ensconced on an elaborate throne with his right hand pointing toward the heavens.

It was not received well.

Onlookers joked that Washington was trying to reach for his clothes. It only stood in the Capitol Rotunda for a couple years before it was relocated to the East Lawn, then again outside the U. S. Patent Office before finally being locked away in the Smithsonian.16

A private foundation gave it another go in 1836, raising money and holding a contest seeking new, more appropriate designs. Robert Mills was the winning architect, with a design that featured a 600-foot-tall obelisk surrounded by thirty enormous stone columns in the style of an ancient Greek temple. That would house statues of Founding Fathers, with the structure crowned by a statue of George Washington himself driving a horse-drawn chariot.17

The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848, with a celebration that drew a crowd of thousands. Speaker of the House Robert Winthrop gave a two-hour speech, and encased in the cornerstone were copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, all the coins then in circulation, and several contemporary newspapers.18

The Washington National Monument Society tried to keep costs down by accepting stones donated by corporations, professional organizations, and foreign countries.

This was all well and good until the Society accepted a stone donated by Pope Pius IX. At the time, there was a political party called the “Know-Nothings,” and they were vociferously anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic.

In protest, the Know-Nothings stole the stone donated by the Pope, threw it into the Potomac River, then took over the Washington National Monument Society through a series of fraudulent elections to ensure that the landmark would stay “American,” for “Americans.”19

Congress collectively held its head in its hands and withdrew support for the project. For twenty years, the obelisk sat half-built on the Mall, a monument to nothing but failure.

By 1876, the centennial of the country’s founding, Congress once again grew embarrassed enough to try to finish the project, handing the responsibility off to the Army Corps of Engineers.

So much time had passed, however, that the original quarry had run dry. New stones had to be mined from not one but two new quarries, neither of which held stones that looked quite like the original, nor each other. Even today, a close look at the Washington Monument will reveal three distinct colors of stone, just different enough to look rather sloppy.

Congress also realized that they probably didn’t have enough money in the bank to complete the monument in all of its originally intended glory. Constructing the colonnade would simply cost too much, and besides, the soft, wet ground probably couldn’t support a structure that massive. It was in everyone’s best interests to just finish the obelisk and be done with the whole thing.20

The Washington Monument would finally be completed in 1885. Despite not quite living up to its planned grandeur, at 555 feet tall, it still managed to be the tallest structure in the world until the completion of the Eiffel Tower five years later. And at the very top of the American obelisk sits a 9-inch tall, 100-ounce pyramidion of pure aluminum.

At the time, aluminum was a pretty expensive material, similar to gold or silver in price. But it wasn’t chosen because of its prestige. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to top the monument with a metal that would serve as a lightning rod, possibly copper or bronze, or platinum-plated brass. One of the craftsmen working on the project, a man named William Frishmuth, suggested aluminum instead: It’s highly conductive to electricity, and its silvery stainless color would look good atop the (mostly) white monument.21

Coincidentally, he said he could get the job done for about $75.

He had no trouble delivering the goods, though it was quite an accomplishment — at the time, it was the largest single piece of cast aluminum ever created. Frishmuth was so pleased that he put the block on display at Tiffany’s in New York City for two days before delivering it to his client. Placed on the floor, visitors were encouraged to step over the little pyramid so they could tell their friends they had jumped “clear over the top of the Washington Monument.”

Back in DC, Colonel Thomas Casey was beginning to get impatient, and asked Frishmuth to kindly get on with things. Frishmuth complied and sent along the aluminum block — accompanied by a bill for $256.10. In 2018 dollars, that’s roughly akin to quoting a client a price of $1,800 and then actually charging well over $6,000.22

Casey was furious. That same day, he dispatched his assistant to investigate the discrepancy, but either Frishmuth came by the price honestly or Casey was just a terrible negotiator, because in the end he paid a final price of $225.

Either way, Frishmuth lucked out with the timing, because within four years, Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Heroult had each independently discovered and patented the process that would send the price of aluminum plummeting from $15 a pound to 18 cents a pound.23

The Washington Monument is a must-see for anyone interested in the uniquely American twisted history of this upright structure. But for those who are more interested in Washington, the man, maybe skip the monument and visit the museum at Mount Vernon, instead.


The Hall-Heroult process made metallic aluminum incredibly cheap, but that process still requires an incredible amount of energy. That’s why there’s such a widespread public effort to recycle aluminum whenever possible: Recycling only requires about 5% as much electricity as it takes to extract new aluminum from the Earth.24

Regardless, of the entire periodic table, element 13 is probably the one you’re most likely to come across in pure form as litter in the street, whether or not you’re trying to add it to your element collection.

So aside from aluminum foil and soda cans, how might an element enthusiast add number 13 to their collection?

There’s no shortage of consumer products made out of aluminum. It’s a rare material that has the ability to appear very cheap, like for disposable warming pans, and also very expensive, like in the bodies of premium laptop computers.

Anyone who shaves or has a cat would do themselves a favor by purchasing a block of alum, which is both the etymological origin of element 13’s name (however you pronounce it), and also has a borderline miraculous ability to stop small nicks and cuts from bleeding almost immediately.

People have known about this property since at least the time of Dioscorides, an author who, like Pliny the Elder and Georgius Agricola, literally wrote the book on his preferred subject. De Materia Medica was a landmark text on the subject of medicine that was studied for over a thousand years, only supplanted by herbalism books during the European Renaissance.

Of course, alum is a compound — technically speaking, it’s potassium aluminum sulfate. For the discerning collector, I think there’s no better sample of aluminum than the Japanese one-yen coin.

The basic unit of Japanese money, the one-yen coin is struck out of pure aluminum, and satisfyingly, it weighs precisely one gram. If you’re careful, you can even lay it on top of water without breaking the surface tension.25

But if you’re interested, you should try to grab one quickly. One yen is approximately equal to one U.S. cent. And much like the penny, the one-yen coin is expensive to produce and not very useful in modern society. Many Japanese people have a soft spot for the one-yen coin, but it’s not clear if the government will continue minting them for long.26

That’s one argument that we can save for another time.

Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To see what else the Washington Monument could have looked like, and have a laugh at Washington Enthroned, visit episodic table dot com slash A L.

Next time, we’ll process information about silicon.

This is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that when spelling words in English, it’s…27

I before E, except after C,
Or when sounded like A, as in “freighter” or “weigh,”

Or when sounded like I, either zeitgeist or height,
And when wishing a feisty geisha gesundheit.

Or when sounded like E, as in “Seize the sheik’s reindeer!”
A task to perform at your leh-zure (or leisure).

Seeing words come from French, it’s more academic:
A “counterfeit ancient cuneiform relic,”

Will give any speller a pain in the keister,
(Albeit, French words almost always sound fancier.)

And lest we forget, the time a financier,
Surveilling a proximate sovereign glacier
Dressed up like a poltergeist, ambushed his neighbors,
And forced them to forfeit their eight heirloom heifers.

I know you’ll agree, if you’re Keith, Neil, or Sheila,
Or gaze at the stars up in Cassiopeia,

Partake in abseiling or dancing capoeira,
Or happen to like a fine glass of Madeira,

That we, in good conscience, should start a campaign
Our species abolish this heinous rule’s reign.

Exceptions abound! There’s no disagreeing!
So right here and now, I’m firmly decreeing:

The old policies should not be revered!
There’s no rhyme or reason, it’s all very weird.

Of course, problem being, once done with our yelling,
Inefficiently needing to memorize spelling.

Sources

  1. Astronautix, Jules Verne Moon Gun.
  2. Jules Verne, From The Earth To The Moon, pp. 37-38. 1865.
  3. Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, Command Module, Apollo 8.
  4. Barnes & Noble, 5 Great Books Too Short For NaNoWriMo. Joel Cunningham, December 4, 2013.
  5. Wikipedia’s Talk page for Aluminium, various contributors.
  6. The Quarterly Review, Volume 8, p. 72. Various authors, 1813.
  7. The Critical Review, Or, Annals of Literature, p. 9. Tobias George Smollett, January 1811.
  8. Elementymology & Elements Multidict, Aluminium. Peter van de Krogt.
  9. See also the Episodic Table of Elements shows on magnesium and beryllium.
  10. The Disappearing Spoon, pp. 236-237. Sam Kean, 2010.
  11. 05:11, 19 April 2016 (UTC)
  12. Slate, Are You A Language Bully? Matthew J.X. Malady, September 5, 2014.
  13. History.com, 5 Things You Might Not Know About The Washington Monument. Elizabeth Nix, October 9, 2013.
  14. Vanity Fair, Watch Like An Egyptian. Bruce Handy, January 2008.
  15. Histories of the National Mall, Were There Any Alternate Designs For The Washington Monument?
  16. Smithsonian Legacies, George Washington, Sculpture By Horatio Greenough. 2001. Retrieved via archive.org.
  17. The Daily Beast, Weird Washington Monument History. William O’Connor, May 12, 2014.
  18. National Park Service History eLibrary, Construction Of The Washington Monument, First Phase 1848-56.
  19. National Park Service, Construction Of The Monument.
  20. Smithsonian.com, The Washington Monument Looks Like An Obelisk Because Of Egyptomania. Kat Eschner, December 6, 2016.
  21. The Member Journal of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, The Point Of A Monument: A History Of The Aluminum Cap Of The Washington Monument. George J. Binczewski, 47 (11) (1995), pp. 20-25.
  22. OfficialData.org.
  23. Wired, April 2, 1889: Aluminum Process Foils Steep Prices. Randy Alfred, April 2, 2008.
  24. The Economist, The Price Of Virtue. June 7, 2007.
  25. PeriodicTable.com, Aluminum. Theodore Gray.
  26. Stippy, The Fate Of The 1 Yen Coin – When Will It Lose Its Lustre In Japan? June 24, 2012.
  27. Washington Post: Wonkblog, The ‘I Before E, Except After C’ Rule Is A Giant Lie. Christopher Ingraham, June 28, 2017.

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