The names aluminium and aluminum are derived from the word alumine, an obsolete term for alumina, a naturally occurring oxide of aluminium. Alumine was borrowed from French, which in turn derived it from alumen, the classical Latin name for alum, the mineral from which it was collected. The Latin word alumen stems from the Proto-Indo-European root *alu- meaning “bitter” or “beer”.
The history of aluminium has been shaped by usage of alum. The first written record of alum, made by Greek historian Herodotus, dates back to the 5th century BCE. The ancients are known to have used alum as a dyeing mordant and for city defense. After the Crusades, alum, an indispensable good in the European fabric industry, was a subject of international commerce; it was imported to Europe from the eastern Mediterranean until the mid-15th century.
The nature of alum remained unknown. Around 1530, Swiss physician Paracelsus suggested alum was a salt of an earth of alum.In 1595, German doctor and chemist Andreas Libavius experimentally confirmed this. In 1722, German chemist Friedrich Hoffmann announced his belief that the base of alum was a distinct earth. In 1754, German chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf synthesized alumina by boiling clay in sulfuric acid and subsequently adding potash.
Attempts to produce aluminium metal date back to 1760. The first successful attempt, however, was completed in 1824 by Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Ørsted. He reacted anhydrous aluminium chloride with potassium amalgam, yielding a lump of metal looking similar to tin. He presented his results and demonstrated a sample of the new metal in 1825. In 1827, German chemist Friedrich Wöhler repeated Ørsted’s experiments but did not identify any aluminium. (The reason for this inconsistency was only discovered in 1921.) He conducted a similar experiment in the same year by mixing anhydrous aluminium chloride with potassium and produced a powder of aluminium. In 1845, he was able to produce small pieces of the metal and described some physical properties of this metal. For many years thereafter, Wöhler was credited as the discoverer of aluminium.
The statue of Anteros in Piccadilly Circus, London, was made in 1893 and is one of the first statues cast in aluminium.
As Wöhler’s method could not yield great quantities of aluminium, the metal remained rare; its cost exceeded that of gold