The ancients from all cultures used aluminum in their pottery, dyes and medicines. They would not have recognized it as a metal though–aluminum makes up over 8% of the earth’s crust but it’s always found mixed in with other minerals. It was only in 1808 that an Englishman, Sir Humphrey Davy, established its existence and named it. Nearly fifteen years later Pierre Berthier discovered a hard, reddish adobe in Les Baux, France. He named the ore bauxite–it contained over 50% aluminum oxide, but as yet no one knew how to get the metal from the ore.

In 1827 Friedrich Wohler, a German, invented a process that produced aluminum in a powdered form, and this method was further improved by Henri Sainte-Claire Deville in 1854. Though it was the first commercial process the yield was small: aluminum was considered a precious metal and was more valuable than gold. A bar of aluminum was exhibited at the Paris Exhibition in 1855 and the element was still rare decades later in the 1880s. Aluminum was chosen as the material to cap the Washington Monument. An 1884 telegram from William Frishmuth, the man tasked with casting the small pyramid, to the head engineer of the project captures the excitement of the moment:

After hard work and disappointments, I have just cast a perfect pyramide of pure aluminum made of South Carolina Corundum. Great honor to you, the Monument and whole people of North Amereica & a little to myself lent….Would like to exhibit for 2 days in this city before express same to you.

It was only a year later that an American, Hamilton Cassner improved on Deville’s process and annual output of aluminum shot up to 15 tons. The precious metal was becoming less precious. In 1889 Karl Bayer of the famous Bayer chemical family invented a way to get large yields of aluminum from bauxite. By the turn of the century output was more than eight thousand tons, setting up a bright commercial future for aluminum.

Because it’s so abundant aluminum is quite naturally environmentally friendly: plants, animals and people have no difficulty living in proximity to the metal. Its remarkably low density makes it an ideal commercial material for the aerospace industry and other applications where lightness is at a premium. It’s also corrosion resistant–the cap of the Washington Monument still shines–and its malleable properties mean it can be shaped with ease.