The Metal That Was Once Worth More Than Gold

“Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold! / Bright and yellow, hard and cold.” —Thomas Hood, Miss Kilmansegg

In A Nutshell

Aluminum is one of the three most common elements found within the Earth’s crust. However, until relatively recently, extracting aluminum from the bauxite ore in which it naturally occurs was a costly and difficult process. And prior to the advent of efficient chemical and electrical processes to separate aluminum from bauxite in the late 1800s, the shiny, flexible metal was more valuable than gold.

The Whole Bushel

Supposedly, aluminum’s discovery dates back to the ancient Roman Empire. One Roman history tells of an unusual goldsmith who gave the Roman emperor Tiberius a plate crafted from a silvery and lightweight new metal made from “clay.” When Tiberius saw what was most likely an aluminum plate, he ordered the execution of the goldsmith. Tiberius feared the goldsmith’s new metal might reduce the value of Rome’s vast stores of gold and silver. Tiberius’s beheading of the unfortunate goldsmith kept aluminum in the ground for the next two millennia.

Almost 2,000 years would pass before aluminum reemerged in Europe, and when it did so, it was in incredibly rare quantities. Pure aluminum was a far rarer find than gold or silver, and prices during the 19th century reflected this. Early attempts at extracting aluminum from bauxite proved too laborious or expensive and were mostly nonstarters. Until more efficient extraction procedures were developed, annual US production of aluminum did not exceed about 93 kilograms (3,000 troy ounces). By comparison, US goldmines produced 93,300 kilograms (3 million troy ounces) of gold in 1853.

Aluminum’s status as the world’s most precious metal attracted the interest of European royalty in search of the most conspicuous and costly modes of consumption. King Christian X of Denmark sported an aluminum crown. To impress dinner guests, Napoleon III’s tables were set with tableware made from aluminum. And as late as the 1880s, when the Washington Monument was being built and aluminum was chosen for the pyramid’s capstone, the metal’s worth was still roughly equivalent to silver.

Aluminum’s value took a nosedive in 1886, though, when a new method was devised to extract aluminum from bauxite. The electrolysis process devised in the US and France allowed for the affordable isolation of aluminum from bauxite. Shortly after, the cheap, flexible, non-toxic metal flooded the market in a variety of uses. By the early 20th century, aluminum could be found in the wrappers and bags of countless foods and commercial products. Just decades after only the wealthiest European elites could afford to dine off of aluminum, the hoi polloi was ripping open aluminum-wrapped Lifesavers rolls.

Show Me The Proof

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis, Steven Kotler
US Department of the Interior: Principal Gold-Producing Districts of the United States
Intellectual Capital: The new wealth of organization, by Thomas A. Stewart
HNAI Platinum US Coin Auction Catalog

  • Lisa 39

    I pay $1.09 for a decent size box of pretty heavy aluminum foil, its not expensive at all, awesome article

  • Hillyard

    When the day comes that gold is as cheap as aluminum, probably sometime after our British friends drop all those silly extra letters they insist up using, then I’m going to have a suit made out of gold thread. Because why not?

    • TheMadHatter

      I’d have mine made out of aluminum, and tell people “It’s worth it’s weight in gold”

    • Lisa 39

      That reminded me of a joke,

      So this really rich old guy decided that he wanted to take his money with him when he died, he had the bulk of his wealth converted to gold and then sewn into his favorite suit that he was to be buried in, a short time later he died and was buried, he woke up in heaven, jumped up and started ripping open the suit, the gold was falling out so he started yelling “it worked! I brought my gold with me!”
      Two angels had been watching him, when he started yelling one angel said to the other “i don’t know why he’s so excited over pavement”

      • churchovdeath

        this reminded me of Twilight Zone’s episode, The Rip Van Winkle Caper

  • Lji

    Eating in aluminum utensils is not good for us. It causes nervous weakness.

    • Breadth Of Knowledge

      Aluminum forms an extremely hard oxide layer almost instantly on contact with air, this oxide layer seals the metal completely. Salts or chemical compounds of aluminum CAN be damaging to the nervous system, but highly unlikely metallic Aluminum. (aluminum acetylacetonate is one Aluminum compound which is damaging to nerve cells, but this does not occur natural and is only produced in labs as a reagent for other syntheses.

  • Nathaniel A.

    We may see the same thing happen with many metals (gold, silver, platinum) if we ever begin to extract all the precious metals from asteroids. The sheer amount will flood the market, just as aluminum did. For more information on Asteroid Mining, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid_mining

    Or Here for the website of a company working on it:

    http://www.planetaryresources.com/
    While this may seem incredibly far-fetched, it will happen sooner than you think.

    • Hillyard

      There have been a number of country songs written about mining, mostly of the very corny nature, can you imagine the one that will be written about asteroid mining?

      • Nathaniel A.

        When it becomes commonplace enough for working class people to do it, definitely.

      • Sounds like a job for Hawkwind.

    • altfeed

      Extraterrestrial ventures of this category would be considered much later, if indeed ever, were there no institutionalized fractional reserve banking available for the collection and redistribution of all our savings and wealth (including future labor in terms of debt enslavement). That this meme (asteroid mining) has spread, and fully-functional cronies sprouted, is the fruit of the wettest dreams of our hierarchic rulers.

      • Nathaniel A.

        Oh, grow up.

  • Dave

    I have read in various places that the roman chap had actually a glass type substance that was fashioned into a bowl, and when thrown to the floor it just bounced with out breaking.

  • mo

    last time I checked, Gold itself was a metal.

  • Stefan

    Wow Tiberius was a cunt, someone gifts you something and you kill him for it? man.

  • new

    GOLD
    need
    time machine
    afford
    pretty yellow things